Legislature to give Montana campuses $38M for low-income students

Pell Grants go to students who demonstrate financial need. In Montana, they account for some 37.5% of the Montana University System enrollment, but they’ve made up as much as 47%. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

(Daily Montanan) The last time the Montana Legislature directed money to college students who need it most, it set aside $2 million, and the private foundations matched the amount for a $4 million total over the 2021 biennium.

This time, various proposals for need-based aid have come and gone for smaller amounts, but the most recent federal aid package directs a whole lot more to campuses — $38 million over two years — said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“So we’re doing really good in financial aid world,” Trevor said of the money universities are getting from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Part of the idea is that students who had to drop out of college because of the coronavirus pandemic can get some assistance going back. Trevor said campuses have to use half of their recovery money toward “emergency aid,” which has similar criteria to Pell Grants.

Pell Grants go to students who demonstrate financial need. In Montana, they account for some 37.5 percent of the Montana University System enrollment, but they’ve made up as much as 47 percent, Trevor said.

“It’s pretty easy to find people that still have a cost of attendance that are in the need category,” Trevor said.

The money doesn’t have to go just toward tuition. It can cover room and board or a laptop for a student who had to take courses online all of a sudden.

“Campuses have a little more autonomy to figure out the amount that you give and exactly how and when students get it,” he said.

A student whose family is expected to be able to contribute zero dollars to their education would be eligible for up to $6,000 in Pell money, but even if their award is doubled, the cost of education would be more than the total grant, Trevor said. Students still have to apply for the funds at their financial aid office, he said, but it’s not hard to receive.

In 2019, students in the Montana University System graduated with nearly $30,000 of debt on average, including students who worked multiple jobs to try to borrow as little as possible.

Because of the infusion of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, lawmakers removed a recent provision for need-based aid in House Bill 2, which would have directed $750,000 in general fund dollars over the 2023 biennium to help students.

In one of many discussions over how Montana was using federal money, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the legislature didn’t have a say over how the coronavirus recovery funds were doled out to campuses, and that money wasn’t direct state tax revenue. In his view, this keeps intact the firewall between regular spending and ARPA-related investment necessary to comply with provisions in the federal law preventing states from using the aid dollars to cut spending.

“We had no control over the direct dollars,” Jones said.

Reporter Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed to this story.