In Montana, you don’t have to be at the top of your high school class to be accepted to a flagship university. A 2.5 grade point average is adequate.
The Montana University System is for the public, after all.
But if you’re a Montanan who needs help paying for school, you might not stay. Retention at the flagships for students getting Pell grants is 67 percent, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Education.
“They’re not very good at holding onto students that even go to their schools,” Vanessa Gibson, a high school counselor for Missoula County Public Schools, said of the flagships.
Just 36 percent of lower income students graduate within six years, and they come out with $26,099 in loans, according to the Commissioner’s Office. Their peers who don’t qualify for Pell grants have, by comparison, $8,695 in loans.
Montana does give away a lot of money for student aid, some $75 million of its own dollars. But a lot of it goes to subsidize out-of-state students — who pay more in tuition — and athletes.
Yet students who live in Montana get little. And Montana’s relatively low tuition doesn’t necessarily mean the total cost of a college degree is attainable.
“The problem is it’s not low enough to keep those students from encumbering tens of thousands of dollars of student loans,” said Doug Coffin, a faculty member at the University of Montana and former legislator.
As he sees it, that outcome doesn’t mesh with the promise of equality in the Montana Constitution.
“Is it equal opportunity for a high income student to take virtually no debt for their education while a low income student gets a lifetime of a huge burden of debt?”
Some state leaders are talking about how to improve the system and do more for the students who will have the hardest time paying for a degree.
Commissioner Clayton Christian said one issue that isn’t discussed often is that high debt levels correlate more to the amount of money available for borrowing than they do to the cost of education.
“The federal government raised the limit, and people are borrowing up to that limit,” Christian said.
At UM, higher education officials have seen people borrow money and send it home to families in need — and borrow to buy a sports car.
Darlene Samson, head of the TRiO program at UM, sees students who need help buying pens and pencils. Staff members in the office donate food so students can take it home for the holidays.
“Students at the end of finals come and pick up their box of food,” Samson said.
To help the university system focus on affordability, Christian has been stressing the need for campuses to be frugal.
“I think we’ve got to be committed to the expense side of this equation,” Christian said at a recent meeting of the Montana Board of Regents.
Regent Bill Johnstone said philanthropy is one solution. He believes the foundations that support higher education in Montana do a good job of offering scholarships, and he also wants to see more of it for students with need.
“We should encourage philanthropy not only to build buildings and do other things, but to support scholarships for students that need it,” Johnstone said.
Topher Williams, who graduated from UM this year, wants to see the same, for the good of the state and the economy. He said countries and states that support higher education do better economically in the long run.
Having too much debt stymies innovation, he said, and the entrepreneurial spirit.
“You can’t go out and take a risk and start a business (and) fail when you have so much student debt,” Williams said. “It makes it harder for young people to go out and live to their full potential.”
Some other states have put a focus on helping lower income students and have seen success. In North Carolina, the Carolina Covenant helps lower income students, and some 80 percent of them graduate within six years, and with just $3,000 to $5,000 of debt.
Sen. Cynthia Wolken, a Missoula Democrat, said Montana doesn’t have to take high debt for low-income students as a given. Families want higher education to be affordable, she said, and the high costs aren’t the legacy that previous generations handed down.
Students may need classes on financial literacy, she said. But affordability has slipped nonetheless and the lack of public support is a factor.
“That’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and we don’t have to just accept it. It’s a choice that we make as a society,” Wolken said.