The Montana Board of Regents on Thursday received a crash course on the Montana University System’s strategic plan, a document used to guide the board over the long term.

Turnover on the board has been high in recent months, and with four new members likely to be seated inside of a year, regents spent the morning working to ensure they were reading from the same play sheet.

“It’s remarkable, it’s encouraging, and it will bring lots of life and energy to this board,” Clayton Christian, commissioner of higher education, said of the board’s new members. “It’s important that we invest as a system in revisiting old projects and exploring new ones, and making sure we’re relevant in our discussions.”

The strategic plan was approved by regents in 2006 and has undergone several transformations over the years. The plan includes such guiding principles as college access and affordability, workforce development and efficiency.

It also guides on issues of recruitment and retention. While Christian is often asked what the MUS is doing about the state’s declining number of high school students, he believes the students are there.

“We’re not in a crisis whatsoever in finding the students we need to make our system successful,” Christian said. “We just have to get them engaged in education at whatever level, be it certificate work or postdoctorate.”

Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for planning and analysis, said the number of Montana high school students who enter college immediately following graduation has reached 60 percent, placing the state slightly above the regional average.

The retention rate for freshmen who continue to their sophomore year remains flat at roughly 70 percent across the system, while graduation rates are up slightly at 46 percent.

Trevor said the amount of need-based financial aid provided by the state to the MUS also has increased to $4.5 million, up from just $3.6 million in 2003.

Still, he said, other states provide more to help students pay for college.

“It’s been an initiative of the board to increase this for some time,” Trevor told regents. “Some states – many states, actually – put more money into need-based aid than we do in Montana.”

But Trevor told regents that Montana still provides a strong financial aid package, amounting to roughly $4,300 per student when grants, waivers and work study are combined.

He added that Montana needs to make progress in getting more students enrolled in two-year education. Roughly 29 percent of Montana’s undergraduates enrolled in a two-year school in 2013, compared to 49 percent nationally.

That places Montana 41st in the country.

“We still don’t look like your typical Western state,” Trevor said. “If you look nationally, more students are enrolled in two year education than four-year education.”

Those who do attend a two-year school in Montana have been successful finding work in state, as have those who attend Montana’s four-year schools.

“Saying our students have to take off to find a job is a myth from the 1990s,” said Trevor. “We’re a net importer, not a net exporter of graduates, and our two-year campuses are driven in getting our students into the workforce.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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