As the University of Montana struggles with budget cuts and layoffs, a group called the UM Advocacy Coalition is urging the State of Montana to find a better way to fund its universities.

According to UM Molecular Genetics professor and former member of the Montana House of Representatives Doug Coffin, the current tuition freeze system is exacerbating the funding problem.

"One of the problems with a tuition freeze is it freezes it for everyone, so it spreads the benefit over all 20-30,000 students, regardless of income... so it benefits the wealthy people the most," Coffin said. He also claims that MSU raised its tuition right before the tuition freeze, and is making about $800 more per student than UM, giving it a big fiscal edge.

Coffin argues, on behalf of the UM Advocacy Coalition, that students should be given money directly through a statewide tuition assistance program that would function kind of like the Pell Grant system.

"Basically you can look at it like this, there are two ways to fund a public university: the way we are now, where the Legislature gives the Board of Regents the money and the Regents allocate the money to the campuses; where you are 'funding the flow chart,'" Coffin said. "The other way is to fund the students directly, give the money to the students and let the students bring the money to the campus."

Coffin says a grant program is already in place and points to the Montana Tuition Assistance Program (MTAP) that was put into the Montana Board of Regents Policy manual back in 1997, but apparently never funded. He says the program can be given new life, without the need for a tax increase.

"We have the money to pay for it, both from the existing fund balance and from current programs that could be shifted into it, we have to fund our students. We will bring it to the next legislative session, with or without the Governor's support... and if it doesn't pass, then we'll take it to a ballot referendum."

When pressed on which "current programs can be shifted" to pay for a revised MTAP, Coffin pointed to the the funds used to prop up the tuition freeze. He estimates the grant system costing around five million dollars.

The proposal will likely have a difficult time without the support of the next Governor. So far, neither Democrat Steve Bullock nor Republican Greg Gianforte have taken a public position on the issue.

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