Students whose families earn too much to qualify for federal aid but still can’t afford college can attend the University of Montana with support from a new $7.5 million donation from Terry and Patt Payne, the campus announced Wednesday.

UM estimated as many as 300 Montana students will qualify for the Payne Family Impact Scholarship, which will award them an estimated $500 to $4,000 a pop each year on a first come, first served basis. 

“When it comes to paying for school, too often Montana families find themselves caught in the middle of a financial gap where aid is hard to come by and the cost of tuition is out of reach,” said UM President Seth Bodnar in a statement. “This scholarship will remove the financial burden that keeps too many Montanans from accessing a higher education and further fulfills UM’s responsibility to promote inclusive prosperity in our state.”

As early as Wednesday afternoon, UM will be reaching out to Montana students who have applied to attend the flagship and whose financial aid applications show they qualify for the scholarship to encourage them to seek a Payne Family award, said UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz. UM anticipates the scholarships will start being awarded Dec. 1 for fall 2022.

UM noted the scholarship was created to help Montana students who grow up in families who earn too much money to secure large financial aid packages, such as Pell Grants, but can’t pay for college outright. Students can use the award in combination with other scholarships and financial aid to pay for tuition, books, room and board, and other college costs.

“Our family is blessed to be able to contribute to the education and future success of Montana students,” Terry Payne said in a statement. “We wish our gift to bring hope to students who otherwise may be unable to attend the University of Montana or continue their education once enrolled.”

In recent years, Montana’s public higher education institutions have been able to keep the cost of tuition and fees from escalating as quickly as they have at many peer institutions in other states. Data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education show tuition and fees account for 12.9 percent of the average household income in the state, lower than the average 14.4 percent among western states.

However, Montana students still leave school with debt. The Education Data Initiative, which describes itself as a team of researchers who aim to make data about the education system in the U.S. open and accessible, notes the average student loan debt per borrower in Montana was at $33,953 as of August 2021.

The UM Foundation will use the initial $7.5 million donation to raise additional money to support the students that fall into that gap between ability to pay and financial aid, Kuntz said. He said the campus hopes in the future the number of students who can receive the Payne Family Impact Scholarship will grow from 300 annually.

“Hopefully it’s a scholarship that we can really build into perpetuity and can really serve students, especially those who could really use this aid because they fall in that middle gap,” Kuntz said.

In its announcement, UM noted Terry Payne, a 1963 UM alum, began his career in insurance while still in college and built the PayneWest Insurance Inc., “on principles centered around what is best for the ‘three Cs’ of Clients, Colleagues and Communities.”

The Payne family has long invested in higher education in Missoula and beyond, including the Payne Family Native American Center and its Elouise Cobell Land and Culture Institute, other student scholarships, and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture building at UM, along with the new American Indian Hall at Montana State University in Bozeman.

“Terry and Patt embody the spirit of philanthropy and giving back,” Bodnar said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for their generosity and their commitment to making a UM degree accessible for all students so that those students may pursue lives and careers of impact.”