HELENA — Montana’s university system is seeking a budget increase sufficient to freeze student tuition for two years and to fully fund pay hikes for its employees, Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian told a legislative subcommittee Tuesday.
“Those are the two things we feel we need to make some headway and agreement with you to have a two-year freeze for Montana families,” he said in the system’s opening presentation to the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Gov. Steve Bullock has said he supports a two-year tuition freeze.
However, the Legislative Fiscal Division said this proposal by Bullock and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer for the next two years “lacks the formality and substance of the tuition cap agreement” reached by Schweitzer and the university system in 2006 and approved by the 2007 Legislature.
Over the next two years, the U-system is seeking a $33.6 million budget increase, or about 6.5 percent. If the Legislature concurs, its two-year budget would rise to $549.4 million.
Christian said U-system employs 7,000 faculty and staff and create nearly 23,000 public and private jobs in Montana.
Economic analyses show the system generates nearly $3 in state tax revenue for every $1 the state appropriates for higher education, he said.
Christian said 77 percent of the Montana residents graduating from university system units found jobs in the state within one year of graduation.
University system campuses receive more than $175 million in competitive research grants annually, mostly from federal sources, he said.
In her presentation, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, speaking for the entire system, emphasized the themes of access, affordability and efficiency across the system.
“We would like to say the university system has strategically frozen tuition rates when nearly every other state has raised tuition rates,” she said. “Over the past 10 years, tuition and fees have grown at a slower pace in the Montana university system than any other state in the western region and very likely the nation.
“While the average 10-year tuition increase across the region has more than doubled, rates in the Montana university system have grown at less than half those rates.”
Cruzado touted the system’s common course numbering, saying it results in “seamless transferability” for students for all undergraduate courses.
“Gone are the days in which students have to repeat courses in which they had also taken elsewhere (in the system),” she said.
The MSU president also discussed the dual-enrollment program, which allows high school students to earn college credits while in high school at half the usual tuition. In spring of 2012, more than 1,000 high school students were enrolled in these early college courses, Cruzado said.
University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, also speaking for the system, said the state colleges and universities have worked together more closely the past two or three years and collaborate on a daily basis.
Engstrom talked about how colleges and universities are improving their student retention rates, improving their graduation rates and are improving their student advising.
“We watch closely the freshman to sophomore retention rate,” he said. “It’s the most critical time. Most students who drop out do so between their first and second year.”
The retention rate, he said, is improving because the colleges and universities are doing a better job of advising students and placing them in the proper courses. At present, a little more than 75 percent of students remain in college somewhere in the university system, he said.
In terms of graduation rates, Engstrom said the system is doing more to encourage students to take a full course load.
A lower percentage of students in the system today take remedial math and writing classes, he said. The rate has dropped to 28 percent, down from nearly 37 percent in 2006. At UM, the percentage is 16 percent and at MSU it’s 17 percent.
“More and more of our students are taking a good, solid college preparation curriculum,” Engstrom said.