Montanans are not shy about saying what we mean and spelling out common-sense solutions to the challenges of the day.
As an educator and volunteer regent of higher education, I enjoy hearing what people think the Montana University System should deliver to Montana citizens and our 48,000 students. We value the public input we receive as it is wise, candid, and refreshing. As a state, our wants for higher education are quite consistent and logical.
We want access to affordable education for ourselves and our family members. We want our colleges and universities to maintain an excellent quality of education. We want opportunities in teaching and learning, research and service, which will lead to good jobs for the betterment of our families and communities. I am proud to say the Montana University System is up to the task of delivering on these important demands.
Here are some recent ways the Montana University System has kept costs down, reduced the time it takes to graduate, stepped up our production of a skilled workforce and boosted Montana’s economy with record levels of competitive research and graduate education.
The Montana University System recently completed a major transferability initiative to provide college course transparency for students who transfer between campuses. Nearly 10,000 undergraduate courses in more than 60 academic disciplines have undergone a common-course numbering process. All courses that have the same name and number are treated identically across the system regardless of where the courses were completed.
The Board of Regents, sensitive to affordability, froze tuition rates at all two-year Colleges of Technology for six years in a row. At most four-year campuses we froze tuition in four out of six years. At two four-year campuses, after a two-year tuition freeze, we adjusted tuition by about the smallest amounts in the nation. This recent commitment to tuition freezes and tuition restraint is truly historic.
Dual enrollment, digital academy, distance learning
More high school students in Montana than ever before are taking courses that count for college credit, either in traditional classrooms or innovative online opportunities such as the Montana Digital Academy. The tuition charged by the Montana University System is half price or less for dual credit. Each semester, about 10,000 students are taking at least one college course online in Montana.
Two-year education growth
Two-year college enrollment has grown by 50 percent since 2006 during the tuition freeze. That is an additional 2,800 students at the Colleges of Technology. Two-year colleges produce the skilled workforce for jobs that require a technical trade certificate or a two-year degree. But they also provide high-quality freshman and sophomore level courses for students who seek bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees at the lowest cost. The per-semester tuition at a two-year College of Technology is about half the tuition of a four-year university.
Montana’s state universities secure nearly $200 million each year in competitive external research grants. This cutting-edge research activity produces and supports many jobs in Montana, including private-sector jobs with scientific and high-tech corporations. Recently, Montana State University and The University of Montana worked in partnership to earn a highly competitive and nationally prominent $20-million research grant from the National Science Foundation.
Integration of information systems
Montana’s state colleges and universities are continually moving toward integrating various information systems into one. We’ve made a lot of progress and efficiency in recent years with student-related data management and financial-related data management. But more improvement is on the near horizon. Data integration keeps costs down and improves service and access for students.
Each of these success stories required strategic planning and policy making by the Board of Regents. Extensive credit goes to former Regent Chairman Clayton Christian, the new commissioner of higher education. We asked Montanans across the state in public listening sessions what qualities they would like to see in the next commissioner. I am proud that we were able to secure a new leader who fits what we heard so well and who will ensure continued success moving forward without missing a step.
The Montana University System stands for access to affordable high-quality education. Your colleges and universities will continue their excellence by operating as one efficient system, by seeking public participation to ensure our decisions reflect Montana values, and by supporting faculty and staff to ensure educational quality in everything we do.
For every $1 in state funding that our Legislature appropriates to the Montana University System, the state receives in return almost $3 in tax revenue that is directly attributable to our campuses and educational agencies. What a great investment. Thank you, fellow Montanans, for your high expectations and support. With your wisdom and participation, it is the pleasure of all of us in the Montana University System to deliver what you expect of us.
(Angela McLean is the chairman of the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education, a past member of the Montana Board of Public Education, and a career educator in the Anaconda and Arlee Public Schools.)