Presentation to Montana State University Town Meeting

October 23, 2002

Richard A. Crofts

Commissioner of Higher Education

 

As we near the end of this day and continue planning for this university’s contributions to the State of Montana, I am reminded of the Old Testament prophet who spoke that “where there is no vision, the people perish.”  We have worked today on a vision for MSU and have listened to constituents help us determine what we need to do for a better Montana.  As we build that vision - - and it needs to be a single and simple vision - - we must keep our eye on the big picture.  We offer quality programs to well-motivated students who, when they graduate get good jobs, succeed in graduate school, do extraordinarily well on professional licensure exams and, assume jobs in Montana.  We should not let ourselves be distracted from that vision by critics who focus only on the tiny pixels that comprise a picture - - we should never take our eyes from the success of our students.

 

For my contribution today, I want to stress three potential elements of our vision for MSU and the university system. 

 

Outreach.  Montana expects us to provide academic programs and services to all Montanans at the time and place they need them - - especially those Montanans whose location and commitments prevent them from attending one of our campuses.  Our model should be “just-in-time” manufacturing.  Non-traditional aged students who are working and raising families in rural Montana need not be encouraged to come to our campuses.  We should be taking programs and services to them.  Fortunately, we now have the technology to achieve that goal.  People all around Montana can access our programs through interactive television and even more conveniently through on-line distance education.  No longer does the student need to be face-to-face on campus with a professor at the time that meets the professor’s convenience.  Our campuses are increasingly using the Internet to bring courses, programs, and services to students at the time and place convenient to them.  Anyone in Montana who has a computer and access to the Internet can take general education courses, teacher education, complete a liberal studies baccalaureate degree, or even upgrade an RN to a bachelor of science in nursing from his or her home community. 

 

We used to talk about this kind of student as time and place-bound.  We need to rethink.  In many cases, these students are not place-bound, but place committed.  The eighteen year-old student who comes to one of our four-year campuses is unlikely to return to rural Montana upon graduation.  On the other hand, if we offer these place-committed students the professional degrees they and their communities need, it will probably never occur to them to leave rural Montana.  Both MSU – Northern and MSU – Billings have programs in place to take nursing and teacher education (two of rural Montana’s most critical professional shortages) to rural Montana.

 

As we develop and improve this outreach, and learn how to communicate about it more effectively, we must use networking resources available to us that have been terribly underutilized.  We have not done a good enough job of getting the word out that our outreach efforts are also an important part of the Montana University System.  If you imagine a map of Montana and locate the cities that house our four-year campuses, you notice immediately that there are vast areas of Montana untouched by the university system.  When you add our Colleges of Technology and Community Colleges the coverage is improved.  Of course, our colleagues in the tribal colleges need to be considered as well. 

 

But now add the counties where there are extension agents; add the seven agriculture experiment stations, add those rural and mostly volunteer fire departments that are trained by the Fire Services Training School, add the research and mapping done by the Bureau of Mines; add the contributions made to the timber industry and the beauty of Montana by the Forest Conservation and Experiment Station; add the 40 schools where we have GEAR-UP programs helping students and their families prepare for college; add the fourteen communities where our Education Talent Search program helps develop educational opportunities for mainly Indian middle school and senior high school students.  Before long the map is cluttered with programs and agencies associated with the university system reaching far afield from our rather narrow geographical cluster of four-year campuses.  Envision what could happen if all of those individuals worked together as part of a single approach to solving Montana’s problems and ensuring that all Montanans know about the comprehensive array of programs and services available from the university system throughout the State.  We would communicate the word about the university system much better and, more importantly, all Montanans would be better served.

 

Transparency.  We do an excellent job of marketing and branding for traditional students, both from Montana and from outside of the State.  This approach benefits especially The University of Montana – Missoula and Montana State University – Bozeman who enroll students who are apparently destined to be Grizzlies or Bobcats by their gene pool and by the breadth and depth of programs, services, and opportunities those campuses are able to offer.  But I am talking today about students who care less about the name of the institution that offers a program and more about the quality of the program, the ease of access to the program, and the willingness of the program to adapt to their educational needs and personal challenges.  We need to eliminate the barriers so that students can conveniently discover and use all of the educational resources that might be available to them.  We must streamline and consolidate administrative processes; we must attack the rules and regulations controlling financial aid that make life difficult for these students; we need to share academic resources and move forward with academic collaboration as was intended by our restructuring of the University system; all library and information resources held by the university system must be made available to all students of the university system without regard for their location; we must use our resources effectively so as to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort.

 

Affordability and cost control.  A decade of lower State funding for the university system has led to rapidly rising tuition and fees.  We are all concerned that the price we must charge students will deny access to higher education to qualified Montanans.  We have done a remarkable job of controlling our costs as demonstrated by the 2000 study done by the Legislative Fiscal Division that found the Montana University System to be the most efficient system of all of the other seven states used in the study. 

 

We need to broaden our efforts to look at affordability and the price that students must pay to achieve their education.  It costs the average student about $15,000 a year to attend one of our campuses.  Tuition and fees make up no more than 25-30% of that cost.  But our discussion of affordability has focused almost exclusively on tuition and fees.  Raising tuition in a given year by, for example, 6% instead of 4% would increase the student’s cost by about $65 - - a negligible amount in the light of the total annual cost.  It will mean a lot more in reducing the costs to students if we find ways to shorten the amount of time and credits to achieve a degree.  If we can shorten a student’s time to degree by only one semester the student will save about $7,500 - - far more important than minor changes in tuition rates.  And indeed, if we can graduate students earlier, they can be out contributing to the Montana economy and paying down their student loans instead of accumulating more debt.

 

Here are some things we can do to ensure that students get through to their degree as quickly and smoothly as possible:

·         Make transitions smooth and ensure that courses transfer appropriately;

·         Make sure that required classes are available so that students can take courses in the proper sequence and not have graduation delayed waiting for a required course to be offered again;

·         Work as hard on retaining students successfully as we do on recruiting them in the first place;

·         Continue to strengthen efforts to help students and their families plan for the cost of their education;

·         Work with students and their families to ensure that students have the academic preparation they need for success in college; a more rigorous high school required curriculum and the final approval of proficiency based admission standards in math and writing will help;

·         Expand advanced placement and programs such as “running start” that mean that students come to college with credits already accumulated toward their degree;

·         Ensure that students can stay at home for the first year or two of college in communities where there are only two-year institutions and still be able to graduate efficiently when they transfer to a four-year campus;

·         Expand the availability of need-based financial aid;

·         Counsel students on the intelligent and responsible use of debt through Federally sponsored programs to hasten the time to degree and to productive entry into the workforce;  counsel students to avoid credit card debt as a means of financing their lifestyle or education;

·         Encourage students to live and work (if necessary and for limited hours) on campus which research shows are solid predictors of academic success;

·         Use technology to develop quality courses and programs in a cost-effective manner;

·         Continue to monitor degree programs to ensure that required curricula are as streamlined as possible.

 

These efforts can achieve a great deal in controlling costs for our students and their families.

 

We must remember that higher education benefits society and not just the individual recipient.  With high quality outreach, delivered to non-traditional students in a collaborative and institutionally transparent manner, and with diligent efforts at cost control, we can ensure that Montana will be a better place to live and work; that our communities will have the professionals they need; and that our citizens will receive the quality education they need and deserve.