University of Montana

Main Hall at the University of Montana

Tuition is a deal at the Montana flagships compared to peer institutions in the region, but mandatory fees are more costly, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

As proposed, tuition will be flat for resident undergraduates at roughly $7,300 for the year at the Montana flagships compared to the $9,300 average.

However, if approved by the Montana Board of Regents, proposed fees at the flagships would remain high by the same comparison, especially at UM. As proposed for the 2020 fiscal year, mandatory fees at UM would run $1,952 for resident undergraduates, or 31% more than the $1,489 regional average, according to the Commissioner's Office; it's also more than the annual $1,671 proposed for MSU.

This week, the Board of Regents will set tuition and fees for the campuses of the Montana University System as part of their consideration of the 2021 biennial budget. The regents will take up a tuition freeze for residents and a 0% to 5% increase for nonresidents depending on the campus.

Generally, the total cost of education — tuition, fees, room and board — is less in Montana compared to national averages, according to data from the Commissioner's Office. For example, the cost of a four-year degree runs $21,370 on average nationally, but it's $17,429 in Montana.

The Commissioner's Office has recommended fee increases not exceed 3%, and regents will take up specific fees that would push campuses past that threshold. The proposals include a $25 "student success fee" for UM, which already has the highest fees in the system according to data from the Commissioner's Office.

Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of budget and planning, said the Commissioner's Office generally froze mandatory fees a couple of years ago and allowed campuses to petition the regents on single increases such as ones driven by students.

He said this year, campuses that want to go over the recommended limit must petition the board directly.

"We're recommending a 3% increase, no more," Trevor said.

In its budget request, UM estimates the student success fee will generate $623,000 in revenue, which it would use for a new "Experiential Learning and Career Success Unit," expanded tutoring, continuing student video production by KPCN, student employment, and software for an academic advising program.

Trevor said higher education officials have debated the use of fees. On the one hand, he said they've discussed converting all fees into tuition, but on the other hand, he said students have input on specific fees, and they are dedicated to a single purpose.

"That's the operational advantage of having some things as fees," Trevor said.

The UM vice president for operations and finance was in transit Tuesday and could not be reached for an explanation of the reason items for student success should be covered by fees.

The regents also will hear proposals for a health fee increase for MSU–Billings; a student government fee increase for Helena College; and a mental health fee for Great Falls College.

Most of the two-year campuses charge fees that are below the regional average, according to the Commissioner's Office.

In other business, the Commissioner's Office will present a report from the 2019 Montana Legislature. Among items that affect the Montana University System is a study commission to review the structure of the university system with a focus on two-year education and potential to "enhance career and technical education."

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs, said he's proud of the work the university system has done in those areas, but he's open to improvements. He said he's also excited about the possibilities a fresh study might hold for promoting career and technical education in Montana.

"If we get enough smart people in the room and do enough outreach, we could get some really progressive and innovative ideas," Tessman said.

The regents also take up operating agreements between campuses and their respective foundations. The meeting runs Wednesday and Thursday and is available via live video at https://mus.edu/board/

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