Student debt at the University of Montana and what the Board of Regents is doing to help

DollarsAccording to a recent study released from the Institute for College Access and Success, graduates from UM leave school with a debt average of $20,532. The study used statistics from the graduating class of 2011 and included 1,057 public and private four-year colleges nationwide.

The ICAS reported that the average debt of a Montana graduate in 2011 was $24,113, which includes UM Western, Montana State, MSU Northern, MSU Billings, Montana Tech, Carroll College, and Rocky Mountain College.

The national debt average is $26,600, so currently Montana sits at 27th place on a list of states with the highest percentage of debt. This list takes the District of Columbia into account, but does not include New Mexico, Delaware, or Alaska due to a lack of reporting or reporting discrepancies.

The study reported that 65 percent of graduates from Montana leave school with some amount of debt, which puts it in 12th place for the highest percentage in the nation. However, 2011 graduates from UM only had a reported 57 percent of students in debt after graduation, which is lower than the national average.

Ron Muffick is the director of the Office of Student Financial Services at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. He said the Montana University System’s Board of Regents is aware that students in Montana are still accumulating massive debt and they are seeking avenues to make higher education more accessible and affordable for students from all walks of life.

In early 2011, a campaign was created by the Board of Regents called the Affordability Taskforce, a program to assist in lowering student debt and increasing tuition assistance for low to moderate income families. They recently allocated funds to colleges across the state to teach students about loan management and to also address financial literacy. The grants totaled about $300,000, from which UM received roughly $19,000.

Another goal of the campaign is to urge students to take on heavier course loads.

“We’re really trying to encourage students to shorten their time to degree, because you can take 18 credits for the same amount it costs to take 12 and that makes it much more affordable,” said Muffick. “Of course, that’s easy for me to say, but when you’re in school, 18 credits is a heck of a load.”

While there may not be any quick fixes to the student loan debt problem facing Montana and the nation at large, Muffick insists that the issue is a high priority for the Board of Regents.

“I’ve worked here 20 years, and there’s more attention being paid to student debt, affordability and financial aid now than in any other year I’ve been here,” he said.