Public universities’ mission is – or should be – providing quality education at an affordable price to students in the most cost-effective way to taxpayers. But more and more, it seems like these institutions are in a pattern of enrolling the most students possible to maximize dollars and finance and justify campus expansions.

Witness the ongoing building at Montana State University.

While it’s all been a great job creator and economic stimulus for the whole state, it’s also contributing to dramatic higher education cost increases in recent decades – up by a factor of 10 in real dollars nationally since 1960. A two-year freeze on in-state tuition considered by lawmakers will help in the short-term and should be passed. But why not take a longer view?

Is this growth faithful to the core mission of the university? Could a change in policy produce a better higher education experience, one that maximizes student success and spends education dollars more efficiently for students, families and the state?

In the last few years MSU has been enjoying – or suffering in some respects – an enrollment spike unprecedented in recent history. But one in four incoming freshman is gone by the following fall and only 49 percent are able to earn a degree within six years from entering the school.

MSU is taking steps to improve those figures, and we applaud those efforts.

But why not use this opportunity to get more selective about the students admitted. By raising admission requirements – and enforcing them – the numbers of students who drop out or take excessive time to complete a degree will decline.

The U-system’s stated policy is that incoming MSU students must have a 2.5 high school grade-point average or a minimum college entrance exam score. But each school can exempt up to 15 percent of applying students from the standards. And according to MSU’s own figures, 11 percent of the students admitted have a GPA of below 2.5. The university disavows an open enrollment policy, one that allows entry to anyone with a high school diploma or GED, but it appears the students who are denied admission for failing to meet minimum standards are rare.

MSU officials have set a goal of increasing enrollment by another 2,000 students in the next few years. Because of the economy and the ends of two wars, MSU enrollment will probably grow in the near term regardless of what admission standards are.

Why not adjust those standards to emphasize student quality rather than quantity? The elimination of wasted credit hours could save money for everyone.