Regents Debate Tuition Hikes, Furloughs

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – One-time federal stimulus money is going to leave a big hole in education budgets when it expires, according to state university presidents who said tuition hikes may be needed to make up the difference.

University of Montana President George Dennison and outgoing Montana State University President Geoff Gamble sketched out preliminary plans for how the schools will deal with the loss of $17.6 million in one-time federal stimulus money for the 2010 and 2011 budgets.

Dennison, speaking Thursday to the Board of Regents, recommended increasing tuition by 1.5 percent and charging full-time tuition for students taking nine or 10 credits per semester, rather than the current 12 credits. He also urged the regents to share more state money with the schools and said the school would make other cuts.

Gamble says he expects to make up the shortfall by increasing enrollment, eliminating low-enrollment classes and increasing staff and faculty workloads. He said the school has appointed a task force to consider employee suggestions for increasing money or decreasing expenses.

Student Regent Robert Barnosky said such plans could give the Legislature an easy way to avoid providing more state funding. It would lead to more students in each class, fewer professors and higher tuition.

“It seems we’re planning for failure,” said Barnosky, a graduate student in psychology from Billings. “Cutting faculty impacts quality, cutting staff impacts quality.”

Other regents welcomed the campuses’ efforts to get ahead of the problem.

Montana State University and the University of Montana already have among the lowest per-student funding in the nation, MSU President Geoff Gamble said.

In case the state budget is in a crisis when lawmakers meet again in early 2011, Gamble recommended the regents consider preparing for employee furloughs and reducing or ending health insurance for part-time employees.

Dan Villa, Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s education policy advisor, objected to the idea of raising tuition.

“To say the only way to close the budget gap is a tuition increase is wrong-headed,” Villa said.