Montana Hall, Montana State University File

Sunflowers grow in front of Montana Hall on Thursday, October 4, 2018, on the Montana State University campus.

The Montana University System is wasting no time in freezing tuition for Montana students and launching major building projects just approved by the 2019 Legislature.

The Board of Regents, meeting for two days in Great Falls, reviewed Wednesday plans to distribute between campuses a $38.6 million increase in state dollars from the Legislature and to set student tuition and fees for the next two years. Formal votes are planned Thursday.

The regents are expected to approve several building projects, the biggest being the $32 million renovation of Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus. The plan is to use $25 million from the Legislature and $7 million raised by MSU to create more classrooms for MSU’s growing student population and new centers for math and writing tutoring and veterans.

“A heartfelt thank you to the Legislature,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado, who had sought state funding to modernize Romney Hall in the 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 sessions.

“They saw that it is not right for us to have an important building, a usable building, with life left in it, with good bones, in the heart of campus and not being used to its fullest capacity.”

MSU is also seeking approval to spend $20 million in donations to build a long-sought American Indian Hall on the Bozeman campus; $4.2 million for a new dental training clinic at MSU-Great Falls; and $2 million for four greenhouse labs for the agricultural experiment stations.

Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, said the university system is “tremendously thankful” to legislators and the governor for their support.

Freezing tuition for all undergraduates and graduate students from Montana will “help all students with access and affordability,” Christian said.

At MSU, the state’s largest campus, tuition for in-state Montana students will be frozen the next two years at the current level, $7,278 per year.

For out-of-state students, tuition at MSU will increase 3.5% next year from the current $24,992 a year, and 5% the following year.

Regent Bob Nystuen asked at what point raising out-of-state tuition would drive away the students who pay a major share of campus budgets. Cruzado said that point hasn’t been reached yet.

“It’s just incredible to believe,” Cruzado said, “but even at this level, our out-of-state tuition is still lower than the resident tuition at many states.”

Mandatory fees that all MSU students must pay will increase 3% to $1,671 next year. As part of the agreement with lawmakers to freeze tuition, university leaders had to agree not to shift costs to fees.

Room and board at MSU dorms is set to increase 2.1% to $9,914 next year and $10,127 the year after.

The total cost of tuition, fees, room and board comes to about $17,429 a year at MSU, the University of Montana and Montana Tech, not counting an average $1,500 for textbooks.

MSU’s budget for the coming year will include $70.7 million in state dollars. That’s roughly one-third of its operating budget of more than $238 million. MSU depends on out-of-state students’ tuition for about half of its budget.

The Legislature approved $15 million a year for “performance funding,” intended to reward campuses that perform well by increasing graduations, retention rates and research. The Bozeman campus has raised its numbers and so is in line to get about $5.5 million in performance funding, more than any other state campus.

Regent Martha Sheehy of Billings said it doesn’t seem fair that the Billings campus will get zero from performance funding, despite its efforts to improve.

All told, MSU’s state funding works out to $7,695 per Montana student, less than the $8,297 average for all state campuses.

Christian said the University System supported the governor’s veto of a bill challenging free speech zones on campuses. Free speech is the foundation of what universities do, Christian said, but the bill would have encroached on the regents’ authority to manage campuses. He added he would ask the campuses to review their policies on free speech over the next 12 months in light of issues legislators raised with the bill.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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