HELENA — Part of the Montana university system’s budget increase in fiscal 2015 likely will depend on whether it meets certain performance standards such as college completion rates, officials announced Thursday.
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, told fellow members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education about the plan.
Gov. Steve Bullock and Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian signed a document Wednesday agreeing that the university system will establish performance measures in fiscal 2014.
Then in fiscal 2015, half of the system’s “present law” adjustment increase — or $7.5 million — will depend on the system meeting the standards.
The agreement was an addition to a memorandum of understanding signed by Bullock and Christian on Feb. 1 to freeze student tuition for the next two years. That deal is contingent upon the university system receiving a budget increase of a certain amount from the Legislature, plus enough money to cover pay increases for employees.
“The Legislature has been pushing hard to have performance measures,” said Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa. “In response, the governor and commissioner worked out a reasonable and fairly aggressive performance funding agreement.”
Jones and Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Billings, have been working with higher education officials and the governor’s office to come up with the plan.
Jones commended university system officials for their willingness to work on it with them.
He called the effort to reduce the time it takes students to get their degree “one of the single most things you can do to reduce student costs.”
Brown, meanwhile, will be introducing a joint resolution asking the university system to study and adopt goals and performance measures aimed at increasing college completion rates for students.
He suggested considering such factors as graduation rates, transfer rates, time to degree, enrollment in remedial education, success in remedial education, credit accumulation, student retention rates and course completion rates.
Brown cited Complete College America, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, that works with states to significantly increase the number of people with college degrees or certificates.
Performance standards, Brown said, are becoming increasingly common in state university systems around the country, to say nothing of the private sector.
“Llew doesn’t work in his ag equipment business or me in my radio station without some performance measures,” Brown said.
Christian said the mutual goal is to get more Montanans obtaining degrees from the colleges and universities.
“I think this is very encouraging,” the commissioner said. “It is a voice not only from the Board (of Regents) but the executive — the governor — and now the Legislature. In the future, to be competitive globally, we need more people with a degree. I think this really points us in that direction.”
In past meetings, some legislators have complained about perennial students who hang around college campuses for years taking classes but never earning degrees. These lawmakers have talked about imposing a “super-tuition” on students who already have already obtained enough credits to graduate but are still enrolled.
“We stand ready to sell this on the benefits to the state and the economy and the benefits that come with it,” Christian said.
Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, who teaches at Montana State University, asked permission from fellow panel members to be “a fly in ointment” on the issue.
“While it’s always a good idea to apply performance standards, we must recognize that perhaps the university has a role that might be counter to some of these performance measures,” he said.
Woods said he works with incoming freshmen students in a seminar, where one of his jobs it to tell some students they don’t belong in college.
“I take that very seriously,” he said. “In doing that job, I don’t want to hurt the performance standards.”
He suggested looking at graduation rates, but perhaps not student retention rates.
Brown said Woods made a good point.
“It’s not whether you graduate in four years,” Brown said. “It’s semesters to degree, not years. You may have to take a semester off to calve.”
But Brown said there are a number of measuring sticks used by other universities that the Montana system could apply.