By Tim Leeds
Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts said that under the current proposed budgets, the university system would be forced to raise tuition.
The university system is requesting a budget increase from the Montana Legislature to prevent that, including a $500 increase in funding per full time equivalent (FTE), the amount the universities receive for enrollment; the system is also asking for increases including amounts for libraries, scholarships, operations and maintenance and information technology.
"If we get the $500 per FTE in resident students, that would make a tremendous difference in how the schools are funded," Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville said.
Capdeville said previous tuition increases the system has made because of low funding has made going to Montana institutions expensive.
"A few years ago we were a pretty good deal," he said, "now we're not any more. The more reliant you become on tuition, the more the students have to pay, the more they go into debt."
Capdeville said he thinks the legislators are interested in helping the university system, and will do the best they can, but that he knows funding an increase will be difficult.
"Everybody needs more money," he said. "Finding the money is going to be an issue this session, and we're not alone. Someone's going to have to figure our where the money's coming from. But I'm optimistic we have to be optimistic."
Capdeville said he doesn't envy the legislators their job of making the budget.
"The legislators do the best they can, they work hard," he said. "Their interested (in helping the university), it's just that they have to work within their means. They don't have an easy job."
Capdeville will be presenting the requests from Northern to the legislature Jan. 30. He will also be presenting the request for $4.125 million from the state to begin construction of a new applied technology center at Northern. He said the universities will be going in as a system to support the $500 increase per FTE package.
Another problem hitting the universities this year, Capdeville said, is the unexpected increase in natural gas prices. He said there was no provision for that expense, and even if the system gets a budget increase a lot of that would be used for the gas expense.
Current gas prices are 150 percent above what was provided for in the last budget session, he said.
"If you see another jump in that in the next go-around, it's going to be pretty hard to deal with," Capdeville said.
He said years of being underfunded will make it difficult to solve the funding and tuition problems quickly.
"The problem is, we're playing catch-up," he said. "We're so far behind, it's hard to make that up in one session."
Documents available on the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education's official website state that, despite an increase in resident enrollment of 552 students from 1992 to 2000, the amount the state pays in real dollars has dropped by $6 million. This is a decline of 23 percent once inflation is factored in.
In that same period, tuition for Montana residents has risen by 102 percent.
The documents show that comparative information paints the same picture. In 1990, Montana students paid $124 less per year than the average tuition in seven peer states identified by the 1989 legislature: Arizona, Idaho, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. In 2000, Montana students were paying $242 more than the average.
Montana is also at the bottom of state funding in the peer states. Montana per-student funding is $2,629 less than the average, and $1,074 less than North Dakota, which is closest to Montana.
On the 'net: Montana Board of Regents budget information: http://www.montana.edu/wwwbor/docs/BudgetInfo.htm
Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education: http://www.montana.edu/wwwoche