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MSU Billings

Students pass under North 27th Street as they walk to the physical education building on the campus of Montana State University Billings on Monday.

When the Fall 2019 enrollment numbers for Montana State University Billings were released, it showed a low for full-time enrolled students. 

But a deeper look into the numbers is not so bleak. In fact, there’s evidence of good things happening.

While the number of students taking a full course load has dropped, the rate of decline has slowed, and the number of students taking a course there has increased. Furthermore, the number of local students who are converting from high school to college there shows incredible promise. This is what we’ve said is needed for a long time: That Billings itself must capitalize on MSUB and have a stronger connection there. We can’t expect students from elsewhere to completely support MSUB.

More students are interacting with campus, largely through the dual-credit program through area high schools. This gives high school students the opportunity to take college-level courses, get credit, and enter the university sooner and ahead. Ultimately, as Chancellor Dan Edelman said, it’s a money loser for the university in the short term, but could be a significant part of the path to restored enrollment numbers and his goal of 6,000 students.

Here’s what we mean: When students take courses through dual credit, the university has to absorb those students at a lower credit-hour rate. They’re getting the same credit, just not at the same payment rate. Moreover, when they come to the university, they have fewer credits needed to graduate, which means the university doesn’t make as much on the students.

However, this program is beneficial for the community and the university. First, it helps prepare a local force from homegrown talent. Secondly, it moves students to the job market more quickly. With the retiring of the baby boomers, we’re projected to face a worker shortage in Billings in the tens of thousands. This helps alleviate that sooner.

Retaining students

Edelman reports that roughly 20% of the high-school students who are taking classes through the dual credit are returning as students to MSUB. And two out of three go on to some sort of higher education the following year. 

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For so long MSUB has had a real problem attracting Billings students, especially typical four-year college-bound students. However, this program seems to demonstrate the university is well on its way to establishing a pipeline. It also shows that once area students see the opportunities that MSUB can provide, it’s a good, viable option for higher education.

Edelman’s other programs that he’s either begun or emphasized have also shown promise, and may be helping to turn around the trajectory of the university.

For example, Edelman has increased the number of Native American students, and he’s dropped the price of residential housing. Edelman and the leadership have put an increased emphasis on graduate programs, and he’s exploring what needs to be done to attract more families to campus, expanding on the university’s mission of helping nontraditional students complete an education.

The numbers may not reflect all the successes, but we believe the signs are positive — especially when other state universities, namely the University of Montana, continues to experience historic losses. It’s not a matter of pitting Missoula against Billings, but it does demonstrate the challenges for Montana universities.

Bozeman control

There are still areas that must be addressed to make it easier and more reasonable for students to attend colleges and universities in Montana. For example, transferring credits within the university system is still too political and too hard. Montana must be better at being seamless when it comes to having a portable education. Montana must continue to drive costs down so that students see the value of degree and can finish on time, not risking a lifetime of unforgivable debt as the reward for seeking higher education.

Finally, if Montana and the Board of Regents for the Montana University System really want MSUB to succeed, it would look at releasing the Billings university from the control of Bozeman. While we applaud Bozeman for letting Edelman continue to innovate, we believe that the politics and bureaucracy of the system slow what should be rapid development for health and medical sciences. As long as MSUB has to compete with Bozeman, it will never be able to fully capitalize on serving this community.

If regents lack the vision to do this, maybe legislators should write it into law. Maybe this would be the first thing to unite our split legislative delegation.

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