Presentations looking at higher education, the economy and the next legislative session crossed over during the last part of a forum Thursday at Montana State University-Northern.
During the legislative portion of the forum, Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns pointed out that Northern had the only major cuts in long-range building planning.
The 2009 Legislature cut a $800,000 request for money to plan and design a new building for the automotive program in Northern’s College of Technical Sciences to $200,000, and people on the Hi-Line should press their legislators to get it back, Stearns said.
“It should be pretty near and dear to your hearts, and it’s important to us,” she said.
Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki said Northern is one of 10 universities in the United States that has a four-year automotive technology program.
“This is unique, and we’re running out of space, we’re at full capacity, and our building” is inadequate, he said.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, the speaker of the house in the 2009 session, spoke up from the audience, saying he was told by the university that the $200,000 would be enough in this biennium. He said he thought shifting the money to increase funding for Northern’s alternative energy research in its Bioenergy Innovation and Testing Center was the best way to use that money.
“I thought it was more important to expedite that to get some jobs on the ground,” he said.
Regent Lynn Hamilton of Havre suggested that, with low interest rates now in place, moving away from cash-only for the long-range building program and starting to use bonding could be something to look at.
The panel on higher education — which included Stearns, Hamilton, Trocki, Northern Associated Students President LeaAnn Lee and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado — was the first to present at the forum, giving an overview of the purpose of the Montana University System and some directions in which it is trying to move.
Stearns said people in north-central Montana should know that her office and the board of regents are committed to the growth and success of Montana State University-Northern.
She said the university system as a whole is focusing on several areas for increased efficiency and growth, including continuing work to allow complete transferability of classes between different units of the university system. That includes the two research universities, the four smaller campuses including Northern, and the community colleges in the state.
The tribal colleges in Montana also are joining that effort she said, accepting an invitation from the Montana University System to do so.
The system also is working with the state K-12 public education system in efforts like improving student preparation for college and setting classes with dual enrollments, where high school students can earn college credits to give them a leg up on their higher education.
Hamilton said several issues are a priority, including working with the Legislature in what looks to be a very challenging session.
She said a couple of the issues Montana’s higher education must address is getting students from high school into college and keeping them there. Only 33 percent of high school graduates are going into college in the following semester, and a significant number are taking extra years to graduate if they graduate at all.
“We have to do something about getting students through school in a timely fashion with a quality education,” Hamilton said.
Cruzado echoed Hamilton on that. Bozeman has remarkably high entrance exam scores, yet it loses one-third of its students in the first year, she said. Of its students, 45 percent take six years to graduate.
“For me, that’s unacceptable,” Cruzado said.
She added that lowering the standards is not the answer, but finding new ways to deliver content might help bring and keep students, as well as moving up graduation.
“Students today learn in a very different manner,” Cruzado said.
Lee said that students don’t want the standards dropped, they want the bar kept high or raised higher. She added that the students want the schools to improve, but that it is difficult to face increasing tuition.
“We want money to better the schools, but the students end up making up the difference,” she said.