Campus Wild

A student lets their mask dangle from one ear after exiting Montana Hall at Montana State University recently in Bozeman.

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The Montana University System approved the $1.5 billion budget during Wednesday’s Board of Regents meeting, saying the campuses were in a strong position despite the coronavirus pandemic

The meeting, held on Zoom and livestreamed, painted a slight decline in enrollment and revenue across the university system, but planning experts said it was in a stronger financial standing than forecasted at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“While we have declining enrollments, and we’re going to have those across the campuses, I would paint the numbers we have in a positive light,” said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Trevor told the Chronicle that the university system budgeted to have less money this year when the pandemic started.

“One of the reasons is we’re expecting less tuition revenue because this is the COVID year and we expected to have fewer students,” he said.

While tuition revenue was slightly down, the university system had taken actions at the start of the pandemic, which Trevor credited for the strong position the universities are in now. One of those actions was a hiring freeze in March, which is still in place, he said.

“Financially, we’re able to cover the holes by reducing expenditures and using some reserve carry-over from last year,” he said.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the state in the spring, Trevor said universities were able to “belt tighten,” reduce travel and cut down on spending to have extra funds to carry over into this year.

In response to a question during Wednesday’s meeting, Trevor said the Montana University System was “in a better spot than other systems (in the country) by a long shot.

“It’s a testament to our early start to getting a jump on COVID,” he said.

The regents and commissioners also discussed partnerships with state and local health partners to identify COVID-19-positive students and isolate cases through effective contact tracing.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic research and student affairs for the Montana University System, said each day of students on campus was a win for the faculty and staff working to ensure their safety.

Local health departments, like Gallatin City-County Health Department, are the primary entities collecting and disseminating information to the colleges and towns with campuses, Tessman said.

“The flow of information comes from the local public health officials,” he said. “And that’s absolutely the appropriate flow of information.”

Testing and contact tracing in a timely manner remains an important factor in containing possible outbreaks, Tessman said.

“It’s an area that’s under stress. It’s one of the links in our chain that needs to be supported,” he said of rapid testing and contact tracing. “We’re hanging in there, just need to make sure we keep that turnaround time as minimal as possible.”

During the budget discussion, regents touched on the importance of non-resident, or out-of-state, tuition to the Montana University System finances.

Montana State University receives one of the lowest percentages of state funds, making it especially dependent on students who pay out-of-state tuition. Resident tuition is on its final year of a tuition freeze.

“I ultimately worry about quality and what’s at stake and what’s at risk for such a disparity,” said Regent Robert Nystuen during the discussion.

MSU President Waded Cruzado said she shared his concerns with the discrepancy in the distribution of state money, saying it “throws MSU in a perpetual search for out-of-state students to supplement our in-state students.”

She said it left the university “dependent on the whims of students from other states,” which has become more uncertain due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Those out-of-state students are harder and harder to come by and there’s not a good scenario if in one year we fail in our pursuit to attract those students,” she said.

MSU reported a 3% decline in enrollment this fall but its anticipated 11% decline in out-of-state enrollment did not occur. Montana resident students make up 57% of the student body, according to Michael Becker, spokesman for the university.

“It’s a little bit of dilemma because no matter how successful the institute is the dollars from the state aren’t there,” Cruzado told the regents.

Regent Nystuen recommended bringing more of a balance to the allocation of funding.

“My biggest concern as a land grant university is we’re going to open our eyes one day and we’re going to realize the majority of our students are out-of-state students,” Cruzado said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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