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Montana University System

Montana has programs that financially support college students based on need, but they largely exist in name only and without funding, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said Wednesday.

That may change.

The Legislature's Education Interim Committee aims to make a recommendation for how the state should address need-based aid in preparation for the 2019 legislative session in Helena, the commissioner said.

The governor's office will not entertain a lot of new proposals in the coming biennium because it doesn't anticipate excess revenue, Christian said. But he said the committee will see if a project to support need-based aid jointly funded by campus foundations, the Montana University System and the state might gain traction.

He said Montana is at or near the bottom in the nation when it comes to support based on need.

"There's a lot of students that we need to help," Christian said.

The commissioner made his remarks at a meeting the Montana Board of Regents held in Havre and broadcast via video. The regents also received a brief preview of the upcoming university system budget, discussed possible changes to a formula that doles out money to campuses based on their performance and heard about an initiative to reduce the costs of textbooks for students.

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Pamela Benjamin, a coordinator with TRAILS, or the Treasure State Academic Information and Library Services, said the cost of textbooks has become untenable for students, and a 2014 study showed an estimated 65 percent of students will forego textbooks.

"That is not good," Benjamin said. "This is a problem not just for the students, but for student success and those institutions that are trying to support that success."

TRAILS is a shared service that leverages buying power to purchase journals and databases, and Benjamin said it's positioned to support free online access to learning materials, or "Open Educational Resources." She said an estimated 82 percent of students said they would do "significantly better" with free online textbooks.

Montana State University has financially supported TRAILS, and MSU President Waded Cruzado said it's an effort that can benefit all campuses.

"This I think bodes very well for the future of research in the state of Montana," Cruzado said

At the meeting, the regents also directed staff to present a proposal for modifying performance-based funding. Some 8 percent of state appropriations to the university system is tied to campus performance on measures such as graduation rates. The metrics also look at how well a campus supports underrepresented or at-risk populations.

A campus can lose funding if it doesn't meet benchmarks, and some regents worry the penalty only compounds the initial problem. Student regent Chase Greenfield suggested that instead of taking money away, campuses be required to direct funds to address their specific deficiency.

Regent Martha Sheehy agreed the formula needed to be revised, but she also said the program provided valuable information.

"I feel very strongly that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under this system, and that does concern me mightily," Sheehy said. "However, the data we're getting from this system I think really helps us."

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In other business, the regents also:

  • Heard about a $125,000 award from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation to start the "iGraduate Montana Challenge Fund." The money will pay for grants to "leverage the successes" of the Graduation Matters Montana program. iGraduate Montana aims to bolster high school graduation rates and connect students with "high-demand career pathways and/or post-high school education opportunities." The total grant is $650,000 over the course of four years. 
  • Received an update on dual enrollment, or high school students getting some college credit. Dual enrollment is growing in Montana at about three times the national rate, according to the presentation. An estimated 63 percent of students in dual enrollment head into the Montana University System as opposed to 38 percent of Montana high school graduates as a whole.
  • Heard the Montana University System will need a 3 percent increase, or $15.8 million, from 2019 to 2020 and a small bump more the following year to maintain current services and operations. Pay raises and additional costs for items such as utilities and libraries account for some of the increases. 
  • Appear poised to approve Thursday a name change from Montana Tech to Montana Technological University.

This story has been updated to clarify the total grant amount from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation.

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