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Unfunding UM's 'Best & Brightest'

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If you're one of the roughly 500 Montana university students relying on the Governor's Best and Brightest Scholarship, you're out of luckā€”at least for the coming school year. Recipients of the scholarship received an email last week informing them that "funding for the Governor's Scholarships was not restored during this recent Legislative Session."

That could cause problems for students grappling with this fall's tuition increase. Ron Muffick, director of student affairs at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, says the Legislature appropriated some money, but nowhere near enough to cover all of the recipients. The scholarship dispenses $1,000 per semester to eligible students, which requires funding in the ballpark of $1 million per academic year. Muffick says the Legislature appropriated only around $279,000, which will now be diverted to general need-based aid.

While the scholarship still exists, and funding may be reinstated in a future session, no students will receive Best and Brightest aid this academic year.

Ronja Abel, communications director for Gov. Steve Bullock, said students deserve to be incentivized for their talents, and that the governor's budget proposal was designed to keep tuition affordable. But neither that budget, nor the one proposed during the 2015 legislative session, included funding for the scholarship.

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, sat on the Joint Appropriations Education Subcommittee during the 2017 session, and says Democrats attempted to amend the budget to reinstate funding for the scholarship, but were shot down by Republicans.

With tuition set to increase at UM this fall, students who were anticipating the scholarship money are now weighing other options. Cara Grewell, a 19-year-old political science major, says she had banked on the scholarship getting her through her undergraduate degree without having to take out student loans. Now, the $2,000 annual shortfall may force her to take on that debt. Grewell says the work she put into applying for the scholarship, and maintaining the GPA necessary to retain it, now feels like a waste of time.

"The philosophy in Montana is, if we can keep tuition low, then college is by definition affordable," says Kent McGowan, director of financial aid at UM. "But because Montanans have some of the lowest per capita income, college is not affordable even with the low tuition."

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