Support UM students in downturnMonday, Feb. 2, 2009

Support UM students in downturnMonday, Feb. 2, 2009

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The economic downturn is a global challenge with an impact far from certain at this point. But what is certain is sectors of our economy here in Montana, once considered immune from market turbulence, are now in jeopardy.

An especially urgent concern is the economy's impact on higher education n more specifically, students who rely on privately funded scholarships to earn their degrees.

As many as 1,000 University of Montana students will not have enough money to attend school during the 2009-10 academic year unless the university's generous supporters step forward to help supplement scholarship funds impacted by the slow economy.

Higher education institutions around the world are experiencing similar challenges as a result of the economic downturn n from the smallest state schools to the most prestigious Ivy League universities. The sluggish economy is placing a tremendous burden on schools, on students and their families.

To address this challenge, the University of Montana Foundation, in partnership with University of Montana Alumni Relations and University Relations, has launched a fundraising program called 1,000 Promises to Keep to ensure that scholarships promised to students will be awarded. As co-chairman of the fundraising program, and as UM Alumni Association board president, I ask that you consider helping our students by making a gift of any size to support our scholarships.

For many students, the availability of scholarships is the primary reason for choosing to attend the University of Montana. The value of most scholarships at UM is between $500 and $2,000 per semester. Many students receive several scholarships to pay their tuition and expenses. These generous gifts from private donors are a welcome source of funding for students already strapped with massive debt. The average UM student graduates with $20,000 in debt n a daunting figure for men and women beginning their careers.

Recent generations of Montanans seem to have accepted that their children are often forced to leave the state for higher-paying jobs. Much has been written about this challenge and its impact on the future of our state. The reality of this so-called "brain drain" will be further compounded by a university system that cannot compete with other states that do a better job of providing privately funded scholarships.

The competition between universities to enroll the best and the brightest could become more fierce in a slow economy. Students will be forced to chose a university based on the availability of scholarships, not where they will earn the best education. Middle-class Montana families who cannot help with tuition and expenses in a difficult economy, once again, will be forced to sit back and watch their children leave the state for a better opportunity.

We all know that state funding for higher education is on the decline. Both in-state and out-of-state tuition costs have increased significantly over the last decade. Scholarship support from private donors is crucial, now more than ever, for the success of current and future generations of Montanans.

Our students work hard to achieve excellence and meet their goals. We have an obligation to make sure that today's economic slowdown doesn't slow down our students.

Please join the 1,000 Promises to Keep program, so hundreds of UM students can stay on track to success. To learn how you can help keep our students in the classroom, please call the UM Foundation at 1-800-443-2593 or visit www.umt.edu/umf.

Patrick M. Risken is president of the board of directors for the University of Montana Alumni Association.

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