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Government & Politics

Officials Work Together To Better Equalize Funding For Resident College Students

Montana State University Northern

The amount of money a campus in the Montana University System receives from the state for a full-time resident student varies, sometimes widely.

The high is about $11,000 for a student at MSU-Northern to a low of $6,500 at Great Falls College MSU, according to data gathered by the Legislative Fiscal Division.

The disparity in state support per full-time student is not a surprise to Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.  He says officials have been tracking that data and is aware of the outliers.

He says in defense of MSU-Northern, the campus only broke ground last May on its new Diesel Technology Center.  

“In the Havre case, we’ve been a little more patient as this new building comes on line and there’s incredible interest in Havre,” Christian says. He says there has been a small enrollment growth over the past 2 semesters, “They’ll have an impact there on that trend line already. So, we think there will be some correction on its own.”

Office of Commissioner of Higher Education

Still, higher education and elected officials are considering entering into an agreement to better equalize state support per student across the campuses. Officials say tracking this metric makes sure the system is efficient.

All sides recognize that the Montana Constitution designates that the university system is governed by the Board of Regents, not the Legislature.

Even with this firewall or “line” between the legislature and higher education, Christian says there’s still a desire between the entities to work together. He notes there is no money tied to the draft shared policy statement and it isn’t binding.

“I think clearly that it’s in the university system’s best interest to when we reach across that line and work with our partners in the legislature, who clearly on the other side, have the ability to appropriate funds to us,” he says. “If they’re not confident in the job that we’re doing with those precious taxpayer dollars they’re reluctant to do that. So we’ve got to create confidence on top of that line, over the top of that barrier, that we’re working together to meet the needs of Montana students.”

The draft agreement under consideration says the Montana University System will take the lump sum funding provided by the Legislature and work to allocate the money so that all of its campuses spend just over $7,300 per full-time, resident student, plus or minus $2,500. Officials are calling this a "band" or an "efficiency benchmark."

“Obviously if you have a diesel tech program or other programs that cost more money are not going to be as cheap as one that’s just doing a Liberal Arts and providing a book. No disrespect intended either way but merely it’s a cost comparator,” says Senate Finance and Claims Chair Llew Jones. “So we expect some movement within the band.  But we also have to understand that the taxpayers pay for the band.”

The draft shared policy goal was introduced Wednesday before the joint Appropriations subcommittee on Education. The panel will put the finishing touches the university system budget Thursday and Friday and send Section E to the full House Appropriations Committee for consideration.