Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian testifies

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian testifies in June in front of the Legislative Audit Committee in the state Capitol.

The Montana University System has approved a $1.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2020, including funds for a program that University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said will increase support for UM's most vulnerable students amid cuts elsewhere.

The budget was approved unanimously Thursday by the University System Board of Regents’ Budget, Audit and Enterprise Committee during its meeting in Butte.

The all-funds budget, which draws in revenue from several sources, represents an 8% increase over the fiscal year 2019 budget of $1.51 billion. The University of Montana's total budget inreased slightly, from $143 million to $144 million, while Montana State University-Bozeman's increased from $240 million to $254 million.

But when he presented the financials, Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Tyler Trevor put the focus not on the system or institutional levels, but on per-student metrics.

“State appropriations per resident student (are) arguably our No. 1 metric when it comes to state appropriations,” he said. In 1992, the first year for which data are readily available, Montana appropriated $9,013 (in 2019 dollars) per resident student. It’s fallen and risen in the years since, but at $8,565, the appropriation per resident student in the FY 2020 budget is the highest since 1992.

This figure comes out to $9,782 at UM-Missoula and $7,886 at MSU-Bozeman. MSU-Northern in Havre had the highest in the state at $11,641. MSU-Billings' per-resident-student spending will be $7,163.

“The state of Montana has done us well on our state appropriations,” Trevor said. But the amount of total educational revenue — appropriations plus tuition — that Montana spends per student was $12,498 in 2018, below 34 other states and the District of Columbia, and the national average of $13,654 per student. That still marked progress, Trevor said, from years when Montana ranked 50th or 49th.

Board of Regents Chair Casey Lozar asked Trevor how these funds were being spent on student support, a top priority for the state’s higher education leaders. Next year, the University of Montana, Montana State University-Billings and Helena College will launch a new initiative, Montana Project 10, meant to boost retention and graduation rates among low-income students. System-wide, 69% of freshmen currently return for a second year.

“Is there a way for us to as a board see financially where these (FY 2020 budget) expenditures are being placed to continue to enhance that area of operations around student success as it relates to these expenditure categories?” Lozar asked Trevor.

“I don’t believe campuses have a single line item within one of those categories called ‘retention,’” Trevor replied. “Now in Student Services, there certainly may be a software program that they’re purchasing, or an individual initiative that they’re supporting, (or) employees with a title called ‘Retention Specialist.’” But overall, Trevor said, the university system’s retention effort "is integrated throughout all of those (budget) categories. … It’s not going to be labeled ‘retention.’”

Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian added that tracking the dollars spent on those initiatives has been a challenge for the Board of Regents. “We certainly have the authority to, but it’s not overly easy for us to manage numbers at a campus level. … It’s not easy to direct a dollar at a time at a board level.”

UM's Bodnar noted that despite recent budget cuts, UM’s student services budget had increased 10% this year, as the university increased its commitment to this area.

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The state’s major new effort to aid low-income students — Montana Project 10 — is still taking shape. "We’ve given ourselves quite a lot of lead time,” the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education’s Crystine Miller told conference attendees. While the first cohort of students won’t move in until next fall, Miller said, “I kind of feel the pressure and I think we all do.”

So far, Miller and her colleagues have determined that Project 10 will provide students with three main types of support: financial support, academic momentum, and “purpose and belonging” on campus. It’s modeled on a highly successful program called ASAP at the City University of New York, but Montana’s leaders are still determining what will work best here, Miller said.

“We know we’ve got a problem in this area,” Deputy Commissioner Brock Tessman said afterwards, "and I appreciate the experimentation that we’re willing to do in this state.

“Do whatever you can,” he told Miller. “You certainly have the support of this board.”

Also at their meeting this week, the Board of Regents spent approximately 45 minutes in executive session giving UM President Seth Bodnar an annual performance review. While that meeting was not public, Karen Ogden, a spokesperson for the Commission of Higher Education's office, confirmed that Bodnar's compensation was not discussed at that meeting.

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