Tuition Increases Possible With New Budget

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – The governor’s budget director told university officials Thursday that the administration expects them to “hold the line” on tuition increases, but realizes it will be difficult to continue the tuition freeze of the past two years.

The board of regents is analyzing the impact Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget would have on the university and college system. The governor is proposing a decrease in overall spending, citing the flagging economy, and no tax increases.

David Ewer, Schweitzer’s budget director, said many areas of government will be getting funding increases — including higher education. But it is a modest increase when compared to the cost of inflation and keeping current programs running.

The regents have the constitutional authority to raise tuition outside of a budget process that is ultimately decided by the state Legislature, which will convene in January.

In 2006, Schweitzer and the regents negotiated a two-year freeze on college tuition as part of an increase in state support for the university system. Ewer recognized no such deal exists this time around.

“The administration recognizes in this budget cycle that we are not asking the regents to cap tuition,” he told the group. “We are asking for your careful consideration, deliberation to keep college affordable.”

College affordability, and spiraling tuition costs over the years, have been a big concern for the regents. And Ewer said the administration hopes they keep those issues in mind as they eye any tuition hikes.

“We are not suggesting you have a proposal that says you hold tuition constant,” Ewer said. “What we are asking is that you try and hold the line.”

University of Montana President George Dennison said the tuition cap of the past two years was also meant to reduce the percentage of disposable income required of the average Montanans to pay for tuition.

“It seems to me Director Ewer, and I am only offering this as comment, that we are really not making any progress on that,” Dennison said.

Board of Regents chairman Stephen Barrett said the group would push campuses to look for areas of possible savings, while not diminishing the current level of service. But that, alone, may not be enough to bridge the gap, he said.

“In keeping with the realities of our current circumstance, we will try to keep affordability for our students on the forefront as we go,” Barrett said. “We have to be mindful of caring for the students in all this.”

Barrett, in an interview, said regents have not yet analyzed how much tuition would need to be increased. But they would like to minimize increases at the smaller colleges and two-year schools as a way to help keep them most affordable.

Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education, said he believes there is less new money in Schweitzer’s budget than the advertised $35 million. The university system’s calculation shows there is a little more than $10 million in new funds, he said.

And he said the state share of maintaining programs is dropping.

“There’s a gap there that will have to be addressed, at least in terms of will a tuition increase fill that gap,” Robinson said.

Schweitzer’s overall budget proposal, released over the weekend, increased funding for ongoing programs about 4 percent a year while overall spending drops due to a decline in spending on one-time projects. The governor has described it as “an austere budget” that deals with the “tsunami” brewing in the world economy.

The Legislature will review the full budget proposal starting in January and will submit its spending plan to the governor later in the spring.