2017 in photos

The Montana State Capitol building in Helena.

Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian urged presenters to be succinct as they make their case for public higher education to the Montana Legislature.

In doing so, Christian relayed a joke a lawmaker made: "The length of your presentation is inversely related to the amount of money you receive."

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's budget proposes an additional $24.3 million for campuses of the Montana University System in the coming biennium, or another 6 percent. Christian said the amount represents a tuition freeze and opportunity to support students into the future.

"We will be arguing our case as to why that is a meaningful investment for students for generations to come," Christian said.

The Montana Board of Regents heard the legislative update in a conference call this week, and Christian said he's grateful the governor's budget makes public higher education a priority. In general, he said the Montana University System has been appropriately funded given families' ability to afford college.

"We are a fairly low-cost provider, but we're also a fairly low-income state," Christian said.

After the meeting, other higher education leaders identified additional legislative priorities.

Alex Butler, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said student officers will be closely watching landlord-tenant laws and any legislation that affects housing affordability in Missoula. Mainly, though, they will be supporting the governor's budget for its ability to keep tuition level.

"Our No. 1 priority for ASUM is affordable education," Butler said.

Commissioner's Office spokesman Kevin McRae also elaborated on priorities after the regents' call. He noted the additional $24 million allows the university to hold off on tuition increases of some 7 percent a year and their compounding effect.

"That really, in our view, is a special opportunity to benefit not just current students but all future generations of students," McRae said.

Additionally, he said the Commissioner's Office will argue in favor of the governor's proposal to spend $5 million on "need-based aid" and on adult learners. The amount is contingent on a match in private funds.

During the conference call, Regent Paul Tuss noted the state lost a similar amount for student assistance from the 2015 to 2019 fiscal years, some $5.3 million. The Commissioner's Office also noted Montana ranks 49th in the country for state-funded aid per student.

"We're just making up lost ground," Tuss said of the proposed increase.

Another priority for higher education is ensuring faculty and staff aren't left out of pay increases other state employees may receive, McRae said. He said the university system also will support funding for its long-range building priorities, which this year include Romney Hall at Montana State University and the agricultural experimental stations.

Bullock is a Democrat whose budgets have generally protected higher education. A Republican majority in the Legislature also has supported the university system in recent sessions.

McRae said he believes constituents still want affordable tuition and the Commissioner's Office is focused on the system's needs in the coming two years.

"We believe that affordable education is still of value to Montana students and families and employers and communities," McRae said.

On the call, Chair Fran Albrecht said the upcoming session is important, especially as Montana aims to remain competitive compared to other states. Albrecht's term on the board expires on Feb. 1, 2019, but she anticipates she will continue to serve past that date until the governor appoints a new regent. 

"These are a critical 90 days that can impact us in very positive — and hopefully not negative — ways. So here we go," Albrecht said.