MISSOULA, Mont. -

Graduate student, Eva Rocke has worked for years to educate herself in a field she is passionate about, the Environment, but now her focus has to change to how to pay for her college loans.  "it's a given that most undergraduate or graduate students will leave here with debt.  That's a bummer because right off the bat you have this burden on your shoulders."
 
The latest data shows an average student graduating from a Montana higher education institution leaves with about 25 thousand dollars in debt. The most common programs require them to repay that sum in 10 years.  

University of Montana Student, Topher Williams says his tuition and living costs are too high, and the state isn't offering as much help as it used to.  "As an in-state student, my tuition is about $10,000 a year.  When I was out of state, it was $21 - 22,000.  When your average income is $35,000, a year in Missoula, families can't afford that," Williams explains.

Associated Students of UM President, Zack Brown say jobs are harder to find and many fields are requiring not only 4 year degrees, but graduate degrees.  He says the predicament is forcing many educated graduates to take their skills elsewhere.  He says, "A lot of folks graduate from Montana's university system, but they can't find a job here, so they leave and go somewhere else.  So, the people that would create the tax revenue are leaving the state.  They young people, the workforce is leaving the state."

University officials tell me, compared to other states, Montana does a good job keeping tuition low, but we're at the bottom when it comes to giving grants to students in need.  "...meaning , a grant they could get because they are lower income... When you compare Montana to other states, we literally are at the bottom," adds University of Montana Financial Aid Director Kent McGowan.

McGowan says, in comparison, states like New York provide direct need grants of up at $5,000 for a student who qualifies.  Montana provides about $1,000.  "It is hard to pay for good faculty, etc. If the subsidy money that comes from the state is not at a generous level."

With higher costs forcing graduates to leave Montana, I asked what possible solutions could fix the problem.

Williams suggests the legislature freeze tuition.

McGowan wants legislators to subsidize more higher education costs and offer students more individual grants.

Brown tells us many Universities, like the University of Michigan, are so discouraged with the political process, they are fully privatizing.  "It's challenging to continually ask for money from politicians.  Many Universities are deciding maybe that's not a game worth playing anymore," says Brown.  He also adds that one bill in committee in Helena would forgive the student debt of a graduate that stays in Montana and creates 10 new jobs here.

As for Rock,  she is considering joining Americorp, which offers intensive community and volunteer service, "...just because they give you $5,000 to pay off your student loans as soon as you're done with one year of service.  I might take an opportunity like that, that has a much smaller income because it guarantees some loan re-payment."

The legislative session will be a major force in how many future students face high debt loads, as more than 70 million dollars worth of higher education related measures are being proposed.  Also, the governor's general budget that is being debated includes a proposal to freeze tuition for two years.  

Various forms of help are available to graduates who find themselves in a financial bind and unable to pay their loans.  McGowan urges graduates to look into several payment or deferment options available, and also find out whether they qualify for the revised income contingent plan on federal loans. That plan bases payments on how much a graduate earns, not how much he or she borrowed.