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GREAT FALLS - The state Board of Regents on Friday approved a 13 percent tuition increase for most Montana college students this fall, a larger boost than originally suggested, but one members felt was needed to keep higher education up to snuff.

The regents, individually acknowledging that it was a painful decision, voted unanimously in favor of the tuition plan. It calls for a 13 percent or average $292 annual increase this fall for students attending the University of Montana, Montana State University, MSU-Billings, Montana Tech at Butte and upper-division students at MSU-Northern at Havre and UM-Western at Dillon. Tuition at those schools averages $2,242 a year.

The plan also calls for a 5 percent tuition jump - an average $90 increase - this fall for students at the colleges of technology in Great Falls and Helena and those attending lower-level classes the Havre and Dillon schools. Those students pay an average $1,800 in tuition each year.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dick Crofts said the regents' adoption of the proposal makes it clear that maintaining a quality, competitive education system is their top priority. What's more, he said, it will help put an end to the annual budget cutting the colleges have experienced in recent times.

"You can't just keep slicing appendages off without getting to a point where you don't have a university system anymore," Crofts said. "We think, while we don't want to diminish it, it's the price Montanans and Montana students need to be prepared to pay to maintain quality."

In addition to the next school year's tuition increase, the board tentatively approved another 13 and 5 percentage tuition increase for the 2002-2003 school year and gave final approval to a 3 percent increase - $90 more - in mandatory fees for this school year. Mandatory fees are those costs students pay for needs such as libraries, computers and health care.

Student Regent Jessica Kobos, a UM student who is graduating and will enroll in law school this fall, suggested that the regents approve the 13 percent tuition increase at the campuses, saying Montana's higher education system no longer can afford to falter. She said it makes her "sick to her stomach" that her last action on the board was to approve such a sizable tuition increase.

"I've seen this university system slipping in my four years," she said, later adding: "I know in my heart this is the best thing for this institution."

Regents originally were asked by Crofts to consider approving a three-tiered tuition plan, which called for a tuition increase of 10 percent for most campuses, 4 percent at the technical schools and 12 percent at Montana Tech. At Friday's meeting, however, regents agreed that those levels weren't adequate to cover ongoing needs and certainly not sufficient to improve the university system.

Regent Ed Jasmin of Bigfork said while it's unfortunate students must bear the burden, it is essential that Montana work toward making its higher education system better. The regents, he said, have no choice but to increase tuition.

"We've continually tried to balance access, affordability and quality," said Jasmin. "For the first time, we need to make a choice."

The approved tuition increases are substantially more than the 4.3 average increase imposed during each of the last two years.

Regent Richard Roehm of Bozeman said he also is worried about the university system's excellence, adding that for the last few years it has been unable to afford many improvements or add new programs.

"I'm very concerned that we've been standing still and slipping back a bit for at least three sessions now," said Roehm. "We have to first live within our means, but we have to keep quality paramount."

University officials have said the proposed tuition increases were necessary because public college system has a $40 million debt, primarily because of skyrocketing utility costs and state-mandated pay raises. Those costs weren't covered by funding from the 2001 Legislature, which increased spending for higher education by $21.9 million over the next biennium, about one-third less than the university system initially had sought.

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