By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A number of state and local leaders are taking a deeper look at the cost of higher education and searching for ways to help students pursue their future without breaking the bank and taking on mountains of debt.

As the cost of higher education continues to rise and the debt burden increases, some – like Missoula Mayor John Engen – have suggested making tuition free at Missoula College. Others, like Gov. Steve Bullock, look to cut the time students spend in college by boosting the college-level courses offered in high school.

“Students shouldn't have to be making decisions on their futures based upon the cost of college tuition,” Bullock said. “The more we can get students thinking about their opportunities while in high school, the better off we all are.”

Bullock, who addressed the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships on Monday at Missoula College, said the state is moving in the right direction by finding ways to boost participation in dual enrollment.

By doing so, students who complete such programs in high school spend less time in college, which cuts down on costs and shortens their path into the workforce.

“Rigorous college courses delivered in high school by highly qualified teachers have proven effective,” Bullock said. “We've seen the data right here in Montana with increased high-school graduation rates, an increase in post-secondary completion rates, and a decrease in time and costs of a college degree.” Engen has taken the idea one step further, suggesting state and local leaders explore the possibility of offering free tuition to Missoula College.

Engen broached the subject during the recent state of the community address, though he elaborated on the vision last week. Free tuition at the two-year school would go far in boosting enrollment at the University of Montana, he said, and it would help local businesses find the workers they're looking for.

“That investment up front ought to pay dividends on the back end all day long,” Engen said. “The few folks I've had discussions with at UM about this insist that I'm not wrong. This is really a time for us to be innovative.”

Both Bullock and Engen agree that tuition remains a barrier to Montana students looking to pursue their future and land a well-paying job. The discussion could deepen as the Legislature grapples with funding and considers hefty cuts to higher education.

Engen said that for many students, Missoula College is a direct route to a four-year degree at UM. With the university and the city bound by the school's success, boosting enrollment and opportunities go hand-in-hand, the mayor said.

“We have some additional opportunities to tie the community and university together,” Engen said. “I always talk about how we're inextricable. What we ought to do is be talking about how we leverage that relationship to make us both better. This is a real way to do it.”

Missoula College will open its new facility this year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Missoula College will open its new facility this year. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Engen, who serves on the search committee for a new UM president, said the issue has been discussed informally with several university leaders. Where it goes next, the mayor could not speculate, and he said funding would likely emerge as a challenge, though it's not insurmountable.

“Right now, it's all informal and exploratory, but these are tires worth kicking,” he said. “We as a community – as other communities have done around the nation – can figure out a way to provide the opportunity for as many people as possible to get into Missoula College and understand if higher ed is for them.”

Bullock said there are a number of models around the country to help lower the cost of a post-secondary education, and he believes Montana must make progress. Still, he recognized efforts in Great Falls and Billings to get more high-school students ready for a college certificate or degree.

In Great Falls, that effort has seen local businesses partner with Great Falls College to turn out welders. Billings teamed up with City College and Montana State University-Billings to offer free dual enrollment in high schools.

“They excused the $50 per credit fee, and credit hours more than tripled this year,” Bullock said.

“Through dual enrollment, we save Montana families about $3 million annually,” he added. “And we set a goal of growing dual enrollment in Montana by an additional 1,000 per year.”