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Sam Forstag patched together two or three jobs, financial aid, Pell grants and scholarships to be able to afford the University of Montana.

Still, he graduated last year with roughly $27,000 of debt, right around the average of $28,000 for students of the Montana University System. Forstag, with Montana Associated Students, noted 60 percent of students in the system need to borrow to attend college.

Wednesday, Forstag lent support at a meeting of the Montana Legislature's education appropriations subcommittee to spend $5 million on financial aid for students whose families earn lower incomes, as the Treasure State did in the past.

"These dollars target the students who need it most in our system," Forstag said.

Gov. Steve Bullock's budget proposes putting $5 million toward need-based aid, contingent on a $5 million match from foundations like the UM Foundation that support the state's campuses.

In the last decade, the state has held down the cost of tuition so it's more in line with Montanans' lower incomes. However, the state has directed just 1 percent of the aid it awards, including federal dollars, to students with the greatest financial need, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Several years ago, Montana put $4.8 million toward need-based aid, but that money mostly dried up. Last school year, the state offered $41 per student in need-based aid from state coffers compared to the national average of $539, according to the Commissioner's Office.

Wednesday, lawmakers heard from leaders of the foundations supporting campuses, a student and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian about the proposal to reinvest $5 million — and double it with a match of foundation dollars — for students whose families earn less money.

Chris Murray, head of the Montana State University Alumni Foundation, said other states have used the concept of a one-to-one match because it's a simple yet powerful idea. The state doubles its money, he said, and donors double their contributions.

"That's why they work. That's why they're exciting," Murray said.

Cindy Williams, president of the UM Foundation, shared the way foundation support evolved since the middle of the 20th century. Campuses had established scholarships by the 1950s, and in that era, students could work over the summer and pay their tuition in the fall.

Early on, donors wanted their money to help attract the "best and brightest," Williams said. Over the decades, cost became more of a factor, and she said donors have become more concerned about students' access to higher education.

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"So they are investing more, and I do believe that with this funding, we could invite new donors," Williams said.

In an email, the UM Foundation noted its scholarship budget this school year is $4.7 million, and 22 percent, or $1.1 million, will be awarded solely on financial need. 

Williams said many who attend campuses of the Montana University System are first-generation college students, and they have "significant need." She also said it will be important to show the way the money will benefit students and constituents across the state. 

Rep. Llew Jones, The Conrad Republican who chairs the subcommittee, has said lawmakers have an interest in ensuring students receive aid based on merit, as well. Wednesday, Commissioner Christian agreed scholarships based on merit are important.

In his comments, Christian estimated roughly $12 million through two programs currently goes to students based on academic proficiency. He voiced support for the proposal to again put dollars to helping students and families who need it most.

"Where we are really lacking — and lacking by national comparisons by really every comparator we have — is in this need-based aid," Christian said.

The education appropriations subcommittee meets Thursday about community colleges.

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University of Montana, higher education