Budget shortfall means university students could see $1,500 tuition hike


MISSOULA, Mont. - Montana university students could see a more than 20-percent tuition hike by as early as next year. In Helena state lawmakers are busy hammering out the budget for the next two years.

In the face of shortfalls, a cut to the Department of Education by an appropriations subcommittee Thursday left a $23 million hole in the budget. If the budget stays that way the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, a state office that oversees education, will have to fill the hole. One way to do that -- increase university tuition.

Some students NBC Montana spoke to said a ticket to a college degree is already expensive enough.

"I've been lucky and managed to get scholarships to help pay for it," said Breana Franke, a junior at the University of Montana. "If I didn't get those I wouldn't have been able to come to college."

Imagine hiking it up by 21 to 23 percent.

"If they do that I'm pretty much not going to be able to go to school," said William Kietzman, who was walking on the UM campus when NBC Montana spoke to him.

If the tuition hike does go through a student who paid $6,500 for college tuition could pay around $8,000 next year.

Kevin McRae, the deputy commissioner for communications with higher education says it's still early.

"That's just the shape the budget is in now, and we will work the rest of the session to restore as much funding as we can," he said, adding that if the budget does stay at a deficit there may be other options.

"The Board of Regents could decide to keep tuition level, and make $23 million worth of cuts in education. Or the Board of Regents could decide some combination of tuition increases and some combination of equivalent cuts to balance it," he said.

The push and pull over funding is far from over. McRae says they may have an opportunity to recover funding in the next committee hearing and again when the bill goes to the floor of the House and Senate.

The Republican-led Legislature is trying to fix a budget shortfall by cutting spending across state government. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed more modest cuts, combined with tax increase and one-time fund transfers.