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Montana report card

Montana earns high marks for holding the line on the rising cost of tuition, but it's losing ground to other states in its contributions to financial aid and per-student spending, according to a new higher education report card.

Young Invincibles, a national think tank based in Washington, D.C., developed a scoring system allowing students to compare what states spend on education, tuition and other budgetary mechanisms.

The report – part of the Student Impact Project – found that tuition in Montana remains below the national average and has increased slower than it has in other states.

Gov. Steve Bullock is proposing to freeze tuition for another two years at this year’s legislative session, which convened Monday.

“Montana has promise to be a great state for pursuing higher education, but it still has improvements to make,” said Tom Allison, policy and research manager for the think tank. “The state government needs to continue investing in higher education, particularly when it comes to financial aid and grants.”

The state also scored well on the amount Montanans pay to fund their schools. According to the report, Montana households spend less than 15 percent of their income funding public educational institutions.

At the same time, the state received an F in per-student spending. The report found that Montana spends less on students than the national average. It also found that Montana spends just $136 per student on financial aid, giving it an F in that category as well.

“In a state like Montana that has below-average tuition, I’d look at the possibility of investing in state grant programs and need-based financial aid,” Allison said. “We understand there’s a finite amount of resources and an infinite amount of need, but you have to set your priorities and say we’re going to prioritize the lowest-income students.”

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With all categories combined, Montana received a D-plus in the report. That’s better than Oregon, which received an F, and Idaho, which received a D-minus. Yet it’s well behind Wyoming, which received an A, and Washington, which received a B-minus.

Through the recession years, Allison said, states divested their spending on higher education, driving up costs as state funding decreased. But that figure alone doesn’t help students determine how their state supports higher education.

Alison said the new grading system is weighted against a national baseline and applies more than a dozen different factors. Scores are available for each state. Montana earned a C-minus when education is viewed as a priority.

“Montana’s average tuition is $6,211, but if you look at tuition alone, you don’t know if it’s high or low,” Allison said. “We provided some context to that data point and gave it a benchmark on how Montana has changed throughout the recession and compared to other states.”

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