The Montana University System (MUS) Board of Regents (BOR) met at the University of Montana on Nov. 20-21 to prepare for the upcoming legislative system. At the meeting, Gov. Steve Bullock outlined how his biennial budget plan would affect higher-education in the state. The plan, created for the 2016-17 biennium, calls for a continued tuition freeze for universities across the state.
The tuition freeze would prevent tuition costs from being raised. Also included in the budget is a one time expenditure of $15 million for ongoing research and development at the state’s universities into energy, natural resources and agriculture. Additional budget items include raises for university employees and a request for $28 million to renovate MSU’s Romney Hall into a student academic center.
For eight of the past 10 years, a tuition freeze has been active in Montana’s major universities. MUS is looking for $32 million to account for the budget freeze; last legislative session the system received $28 million for that reason. By continuing to freeze tuition, Bullock hopes to alleviate costs for families and to ensure prospective students get into colleges and universities. The governor sees these continued moves to invest in Montana’s higher education as long term investments into the state’s future.
Though the BOR praised the budget, it was noted that while tuition may be frozen, expenditures for higher education will continue to rise. Clayton Christian, commissioner of higher education, agreed, saying, “The budget freezes tuition, but it doesn’t freeze expenditures, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.”
Ultimately the BOR will have to approve the tuition freeze and other recommendations found in the biennial budget before it is brought to the legislature for approval. At the moment the construction and renovation of Romney Hall is one of the board’s top priorities.
The meeting was also an opportunity for MSU to present its achievements and accomplishments from the past year. Though the first-time freshman enrollment had fallen from 1,570 in the fall of 2013 down to 1,471 this fall, total FTE (full-time equivalent) students had risen 0.9 percent (from 12,847 to 12,966). Additionally MSU saw a record enrollment of 15,421, an increase of 127 students, or one percent, from last fall. That makes the eighth time in the last nine years that MSU has set an enrollment record. These factors are especially significant since total student enrollment and number of FTE students decreased for colleges and universities across the state. Incoming freshman students this year boasted average SAT scores of 1720, average ACT scores of 25.3, and average high school GPAs of 3.43, which are the highest reported since 1990.
MSU also included information regarding awards and grants the school has recently received. MSU was named one of the nation’s top 100 universities for awarding degrees to Native American students by Diverse Issues in Higher Education. It was also one of only 83 universities to receive the 2014 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award from Insight Into Diversity magazine. Several departments were awarded grants, including $18 million from the National Institute of Health for the MSU directed Montana Idea Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, $300,000 to the College of Nursing, a further $5.4 million from the NIH to fund research to better understand and treat emerging diseases and $7 million from NASA for research into the chemical reactions between rock and water and the effects upon living organisms.
The university also released information for the board meeting over viewing external evaluations of several degree programs offered on campus. Among these were Department of Agriculture Economics and Economics, Masters of Public Administration and the Department of Mathematical Sciences.
For more information, minutes and items from past board meetings, including the November meeting, can be viewed at mus.edu/board/meetings/agendas-and-minutes.asp.