Board of Regents

The Montana Board of Regents meeting at Montana Tech in September 2015.

RENATA BIRKENBUEL, The Montana Standard

The University of Montana has budgeted for a 6.6 percent drop in enrollment for the 2017 fiscal year, which began July 1, according to a presentation to the Montana Board of Regents on Wednesday.

UM budgeted for 10,409 full-time equivalent students, including those at Missoula College. The figures are preliminary.

The Commissioner of Higher Education's staff said enrollment across the Montana University System is "slightly up" over last fall and will support the budgets proposed by the campuses, including UM.

At the meeting in Billings, the regents talked about enrollment, heard an update on state support for higher education, and took up the $1.54 billion system budget for the 2017 fiscal year.

Chuck Jensen, deputy commissioner for administration and finance, said it was critical to point out the University of Montana had made progress in aligning its budget with its enrollment projections.

“It’s really important to note that in the two fiscal years from FY15 to FY17, this campus has made a significant reduction in their operating expenses,” Jensen said, citing more than $10 million in cuts.

Enrollment started slipping at UM in 2011 and the campus so far has not been able to reverse the decline.

Official enrollment figures were not available at the meeting for any campus. They take a census on the 15th day of classes when fees are due, and most campuses are only in their 12th day.

Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of planning and analysis, said the commissioner asked him to pull preliminary enrollment data together for the regents meeting. While he said he was confident the data supports "the validity of our operating budgets," he isn't convinced the figures are accurate because the enrollment target is still moving.

Before the budget discussion, Regent Martha Sheehy asked Trevor to direct her to the document that showed the enrollment estimates for each of the branches. She said she understood the preliminary nature of the information.

"Where do I look to find the numbers that we're close to?" Sheehy said.

At this point, Trevor said, the estimates include "too many stipulations for the average person to digest." However, he said the regents would receive more details when they discussed the budget. During that portion of the agenda, they received the numbers each campus had budgeted for the fiscal year.

Montana State University in Bozeman is planning on an enrollment increase of 3.4 percent for a total of 14,412 full-time equivalent students, including Gallatin College students.

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At the meeting, the regents moved the Montana University System budget for approval Thursday.

Over the past decade, higher education has seen strong state support, Trevor said. Commissioner Clayton Christian said former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and current Gov. Steve Bullock have backed higher education, as have legislators, so this state is in a different financial position than many others.

“We have increased state revenue, something only three other states have managed to do in that same period of time,” Christian said.

At one point, state support had fallen to 32 percent of the cost of higher education, and the board wanted to get closer to 50 percent, he said. State support now sits at about 40 percent, although it’s at 50 percent for resident students.

The budget the regents will formally vote on Thursday is $1.54 billion and up 6 percent from the 2016 fiscal year.

Regent Bill Johnstone said he wasn’t comfortable that the regents could only vote up or down on such a large item. He’d like to ensure the university system is providing adequate “need-based aid” and he hopes to take a closer look at that issue and tuition in the future.

“It does represent one of the most important decisions we’re asked to make every year,” Johnstone said of the budget.

Regent Sheehy said she was heartened to hear the campuses were aligning their budgets with their enrollment – and living within their means. At the same time, she wanted the regents to be able to systematically discuss other significant items.

In particular, she wanted to know whether campuses were on track with enrollment and if the plan put forward for Missoula last fall was on track.

“Are we on the right course with respect to growth?” Sheehy said.

In response, President Royce Engstrom said UM is taking a number of steps to strengthen enrollment. Its new vice president for enrollment management, Tom Crady, is revising operations in recruiting and admissions, for one.

UM is being more aggressive in “strategic, non-resident markets,” and it has launched an effort to improve customer service, he said. The campus also is evaluating its curricula and adjusting offerings.

“When you are in Missoula for the November meeting, we would like to give you a more complete, detailed view of some of those efforts and how they’re progressing at that time,” Engstrom said.

The board reconvenes at 8:15 a.m. Thursday. A live feed of the meeting is available at mus.edu/board/meetings/2016/Sept2016/Sept2016.asp

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian