During their meeting last week in Missoula, the state Board of Regents praised the biennial budget presented by Gov. Steve Bullock, but cautioned that while it freezes tuition for another two years, it doesn’t freeze the rising costs of higher education.
Gathered at the University of Montana, regents considered new health care programs funded by a federal education grant and discussed at length the challenges facing the state’s two flagship universities when recruiting and keeping faculty.
The system’s lack of competitive pay could cost tens of millions of dollars to rectify, even if the low benchmark of 80 percent of the national average was the goal.
Some Montana University System leaders suggested that a tuition freeze can’t go on in perpetuity. Lifting it will eventually bring questions of fairness for students, the taxpayers and university faculty at a time when student debt is at its greatest.
“We’re basically asking the state of Montana to fund tuition increases,” said Clayton Christian, the state commissioner of higher education. “The budget freezes tuition, but it doesn’t freeze expenditures, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.”
Christian said the governor’s proposed budget includes funding requested by the university system to cover growth in the animal veterinary program and WWAMI, a medical education and training program operated by Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
The University of Montana created its WWAMI track in 2008, and Montana State University is now seeking regents’ approval to grow its program in partnership with Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman.
“Those pieces are where we hoped they’d be,” said Christian. “The other pieces include research funding. I really do believe that’s a jobs creator.”
Regent Paul Tuss of Havre, the board’s chair, said Bullock’s budget includes $15 million for research and development. He too sees the investment as a jobs builder, one the university system can help grow.
“It’ll have a significant and profound impact on Montana’s economy,” Tuss said. “The researchers on our campuses will leverage that 20 times or 30 times. This is a budget that’s not just pro-education or pro-higher education. It’s also pro-economic growth.”
What remains on the table is funding for university faculty and staff, so “they’re treated the same as any other state employee.”
Leaders from schools across the state have shared the challenges they face when recruiting faculty from a national pool, or resolving inequity within the ranks of current faculty members.
“The market really reflects the demand or competition for our faculty, and it impacts both hiring and retention,” said Montana State University Provost Martha Potvin. “We still lose our candidates and high-performing faculty to other institutions.”
Beyond the faculty issue, Christian said the governor’s budget includes $4.6 million for deferred maintenance on campuses across Montana, an amount that could be paid with cash.
It also proposes $57 million in needed building renovations, which could be paid with bonds. But some state Republicans have expressed apprehension over bonding such projects, saying they didn’t want to work from the standpoint of debt.
“I don’t know how those bill numbers are going to come out,” Christian said. “But it sounds like they’ll propose one bill with a portion of cash and a portion of bonds. We don’t anticipate they’ll ever fund our entire list of long-range priorities.”
Regents agree that Bullock’s budget shows the governor’s office is fully behind higher education. They also believe the university system is “at a good point” going into the 2015 legislative session, which begins in January.
But Regent William Johnstone suggested that tuition freezes can’t go on indefinitely. He said the board needed to explore long-term solutions that are fair to students, taxpayers, faculty and staff.
Regent Jeffery Krauss of Bozeman also expressed the need for financial restraint and a long-term vision. Regents in California last week voted to raise tuition by 5 percent annually over the next five years, so long as the system doesn't receive more funding from the state.
It's the national atmosphere the Montana University System is working in.
“I think our governor has prioritized education, but we can’t lose sight of our responsibility to prioritize within that budget,” said Krauss. “Nothing else in the budget is frozen. We still have quite a bit of moving pieces.”