MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
Montana's Board of Regents, facing a decision on college tuition hikes or program cuts after getting less state funding for higher education than hoped for, is hearing different opinions on what should be done. Elected student government leaders, the only students to speak Wednesday at a board meeting, said they would prefer a tuition increase to program cuts. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, meanwhile, continues to push for a tuition freeze. "Our schools must look at tuition increases," said Matt Fennell, president of the Associated Students of the University Montana. "We understand that quality education has a price and we can meet that." The regents have constitutional discretion to set the budget for the state's colleges and universities. But the Legislature decides what portion the state will pay. Student tuition makes up the other biggest piece. Regents are now looking at the issues that could lead to a tuition hike and looking at ways costs could be cut to mitigate any hikes. Decisions could come at a regents' meeting later this month. Chairman Stephen Barrett said it's too early to say if tuition will be increased. "We need to gather all of the data," he said, "but clearly it is a very difficult situation." The board was told by staffers that state and federal stimulus funding went up about $12 million for the two-year budget period, far short of the $30 million education officials estimated was needed to keep current services intact. Colleges are coming off a two-year period where tuition was frozen as part of an initiative advanced by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Schweitzer has said he hopes regents will continue to freeze tuition at current levels. "While the rest of the nation is cutting budgets for higher education, the Montana university system budget was increased," said Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliott. "The governor supports holding the line on tuition but it is now in the hands of the regents to set the cost of higher education." The individual schools are proposing cost-saving measures to make up the difference between what they think is needed and what the Legislature offered. For instance, the University of Montana said it could reduce equipment purchases and travel and defer hiring and maintenance, along with other cuts. Other campuses said they could reduce library book purchases or cut some sports programs. UM President George Dennison said program cuts would lead to larger class sizes, fewer courses and a diminished educational experience. He also said officials could raise nonresident tuition first as a way to help make ends meet. The colleges reported to the regents that that the budget gap between what they believe is needed compared to what the Legislature provided would also mean reductions in work force training and could hurt long-term planning. Barrett called the campus ideas a "pretty aggressive approach to deal with the problems we face." The chairman cautioned that future budgets could be even tighter because the one-time federal stimulus money used to buoy state spending this year won't be there. "We are going to have to envision some type of systemic changes beyond what we do," Barrett said.