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Increasing tuition tops regents' agenda

Increasing tuition tops regents' agenda

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HELENA - Next week the state Board of Regents will consider raising tuition by 3 to 7 percent for Montana university system students and will once again discuss the possibility of charging different tuition rates at different campuses.

Higher Education Commissioner Dick Crofts said Thursday his office is completing the tuition proposal for the regents' review at their meeting in Missoula Nov. 19-20. Final tuition increases won't be known, however, until after the 1999 Legislature determines how much money the university system will receive over the next two years, Crofts said.

Final approval of tuition increases for 2000 and 2001 will come at the regents' May meeting, after the Legislature adjourns, Crofts said.

He said the regents want to keep tuition increases below the annual 6.5 percent to 7 percent increases imposed over the last few years. At the same time, however, the boost must reflect cost-of-living increases felt in Montana, about 3 percent, he said.

"Clearly, the regents are expecting something significantly lower than we've seen in the last four years," Crofts said.

A lot depends on what Gov. Marc Racicot recommends to the 1999 Legislature in his budget, expected out in the next few days.

Crofts said Racicot's request for university-system funding will give higher-education officials a better feel for how much money they will have to work with, and how much tuition might be needed to carry the system through the next two years.

The university system had requested a state-spending increase of $39 million in its budget to Racicot, listing its top needs as improvements for libraries and computers, more money for financial-aid grants and increasing course offerings on the Internet. The system received $224 million in state money in fiscal years 1998 and 1999.

Crofts said the system also asked that another $2.2 million be included to lower tuition at the smaller campuses. But Dave Lewis, Racicot's budget director, said that money won't be part of the governor's recommendation.

Crofts said higher education officials also are considering whether students at the larger and more popular Bozeman and Missoula campuses should pay more for education, while the smaller two-year and four-year campuses would be charged less. Such a move, he said, would help encourage Montanans to attend the two-year colleges and smaller four-year campuses.

Most important, Crofts said, is that tuition at the state's five two-year technical colleges fall more in line with those at similar schools in the region. He said Montana's technical schools are much more expensive than those elsewhere.

One option for the regents to consider, he said, is freezing tuition at current levels at the colleges of technology in Missoula, Helena, Great Falls and Billings and Butte and at the four-year smaller schools in Dillon, Butte, Billings and Havre.

At the regents' meeting in September, Crofts presented a possible plan under which tuition would increase by about 3 percent a year for students on the Missoula and Bozeman campuses. Students at the smaller four-year schools would see tuition decrease by about 4 percent annually, while two-year college students would see reductions of between 14 and 18 percent.

That proposal, Crofts said, was simply a suggestion, and those numbers weren't set in stone.

University officials have been grappling for some time with dwindling enrollments at smaller state campuses, especially at the two-year educational units. Special efforts, such as boosting course offerings and making credits easier to transfer, have started improving enrollments at those campuses.

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