HELENA – A legislative subcommittee on Tuesday approved a $28 million budget increase for the Montana university system over the next two years to cover most of the costs of freezing tuition for in-state students over the same period.

The increase will be $13.2 million the first year of the two-year budget period beginning July 1 and $15.04 million the second year.

In addition, the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education tied half of the increase in the second year – about $7.5 million in fiscal 2015 – to colleges and universities meeting certain performance standards, such as college completion rates and reducing the length of time for students to obtain degrees. These standards will be developed by the university system.

“We think of higher education as an investment in Montana and its future,” Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian said afterward. “We’re extremely pleased that this committee came together and moved our funding forward.”

All members of the subcommittee on Tuesday signed an addendum to the Feb. 1 memorandum of understanding signed by Gov. Steve Bullock and Christian to freeze tuition for in-state students for two years, provided the system received a certain increase in appropriations.

The addendum provides that half of the fiscal 2015 budget increase will be tied to performance standards developed by the colleges and universities.

The additional appropriation will cover 82 percent of the cost of freezing tuition. The remaining 18 percent will come from nonresident student tuition, according to Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education for fiscal affairs.

As part of the agreement, the Legislature also must appropriate sufficient money to cover any pay increases for university system employees.

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All subcommittee members signed the addendum, but two of them – Reps. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, and Donald Jones, R-Billings – voted against the decision to appropriate the $28 million increase.

Sens. Llew Jones , R-Conrad, and Taylor Brown, R-Billings, led the push on the subcommittee to tie part of the budget increase to colleges and universities meeting performance standards.

“We all signed the agreement,” Llew Jones said. “I’m very pleased.”

Christian called the addendum calling for performance measures “sort of a historic moment” for the university system, with Bullock, him and all subcommittee members from both political parties and both chambers signing it.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said afterward, “We knew the direction we had to go. Senator Jones was trying to get certain performance measures. It’s the Board of Regents and colleges that have to do it.”

He added, “It’s amazing when you discuss things how the problems get solved.”

Rep. Robert Mehlhoff, D-Great Falls, also called the vote “historic.”

Twenty or 30 years ago, Mehlhoff said the state paid two-thirds of the cost of the university system and students the other third through tuition. Now, it’s the opposite, with students bearing two-thirds of the cost.

“This will stabilize this and perhaps turn it in the other direction,” he said.

Mehlhoff said he teaches at a two-year college, where many students are nontraditional, older students with families.

Mehlhoff said it could be counterproductive if the performance standards are set for students at two-year colleges to finish in two years. Many nontraditional students also work to support their families and aren’t able to complete their studies in two years, he said.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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(2) comments

mike1

I could be a bit concerned about some of the "performance standards" being tied to funding. It is probably a good idea to have these standards, however, one must be careful to avoid causing the following: [1] forcing instructors to lower course standards to decrease attrition rates (cause grade inflation to pass students with insufficient prerequisite knowledge), [2] offer poorly prepared totally online courses which do not give students the minimum knowledge, specifically mathematics, statistics, and "hard" science courses, [3] fail to give multiple opportunities for one-on-one or face-to-face tutoring help during the course. In short, if we cut academic course "corners" to shove students through courses (especially courses used as prerequisite ones in student curricula), we shortchange learning in both that course and in the followup courses--results which are unjust and damaging for both student and teacher of the followup courses.

BobbyLee
BobbyLee

Once again we are going down the tuition 'freeze' route. It's a political gimmick, using education as the football to be kicked around at a whim. What, after all, happens when the 'freeze' is lifted? Those still in school see a higher than normal rise to pay for that lost during the freeze, plus interest! So if you're about to embark on a 4 years degree, it's basically like bait and switch: 2 years frozen, then 2 years with raises higher than would normally have occurred in order to catch up. It does nothing to reduce the overall cost of education. It, in fact, increases it. But, of course, let's go off down that road again, do exactly the same thing ('90s), and hope for a different outcome this time, because that's the brilliance of modern politics, where thimble-brained sociopaths more interested in their own positions play a game of unending insanity by kicking the same ball the same way while expecting something different to happen.

The same happens during hiring freezes. It ruins organizations for years. When you inhibit hiring for 3 years, and then play catch-up on the 4th year by hiring 3 years worth of people, you end up with an organization half-full of inexperience. The government just loves hiring freezes, especially in the firefighting ranks, where droves of inexperienced, youthful people are exactly what they want. Jebus! For instance, look at the Thirtymile Fire: gross inexperience killed those kids, not tiredness (as the official CYA report stated).

And, pray tell, how Montana intends to promote its colleges and attract out-of-state students when that little group will see tuition rise to help pay 18 percent of the temporary frozen tuition for in-state residents? Then, when that little snippet of wisdom catches on across the land, and enrollment inevitably dwindles, is tuition going to rise or fall overall as a result? To you thimble-brained politicians, it will rise, because administration still has to be paid, and administration, and the benefits until death retirement welded into it, are the myriad straws that are breaking the back of eduction.

If you want to reduce the cost of education, reduce empiric busy-work administration. Throwing money as senior administrators who build personal empires just makes rich administrators, it does nothing whatsoever for education. How many times so we have to learn that? How many senior department managers at the UofM are earning $100,000? Scores! How many of them have tiers of assistant managers? All of them. How many are needed? At most, half of them, because half of them are worthless and are just cruising for an easy retirement. They actually do no work at all, they sit in meeting after repetitive meeting, getting nowhere.

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