Members of the Board of Regents from the Montana University System were in Helena this week for two days of meetings, but stopped by a gathering of a grass-roots group of residents and business people to discuss education issues and comment about one of its two-year schools, Helena College.
The board met early Thursday at the Montana Club with Hometown Helena. Members were in town as the board rotates its meetings around the state and holds gatherings with the public, chair Brianne Rogers said.
She discussed the board's goals and said much of their legislative agenda centers on securing state resources, investments of general fund dollars and providing programs for Montanans at affordable costs.
Rogers said they wanted to offer classes to Montana students without costs or location being a barrier. She discussed the 123 dual-enrollment program that provides students with college coursework for free. She said that has tripled the number of students taking college coursework during high school in the past decade.
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She also mentioned the Sprint Degree Initiative which works with an employer to allow a student to proceed at an accelerated pace while ensuring the program leads to a good job.
The overall goal is to provide more students more access to degree programs at a cost that is the lowest for in-state residents. She said college can transform lives and provide Montana employers with the work force they need.
“There is no community more important to us than Helena,” she said. “And no campus more important to us than Helena College in our system of 40,000 students and 16 campuses.”
The panel was asked about student housing in Helena.
Clayton T. Christian, Montana University System's commissioner of higher education, said Helena had one of the fastest-rising rental costs in the nation. While still lower than what students are facing in Missoula and Bozeman, rent costs are rising rapidly.
But he noted that education is more affordable at Helena College. If people take advantage of certain grants, tuition and fees can be paid.
"We use more state resources at the smaller campuses, so they get a higher state allocation that makes it more affordable," he said. “Where we can’t always fix the housing side, we try address that in terms of overall affordability.”
He said many of the two-year campuses have less of a residential demand that the four-year schools, but affordability is still a big piece. He said the overall cost could be much less at Helena College than other institutions.
One father in the audience said his child was planning to attend college out of state. The child told him they were not a girl nor a boy, but was somewhere in-between. He said he had attended hearings in the state Capitol where lawmakers were debating defining sex based on sex organs and chromosomes.
“Basically it boils down to are you a boy or girl and that’s it,” he said, asking what the colleges are doing for students who identify as non-binary or transgender to make feel safe and welcome in state.
“How are we taking care of these kids and how can we do better?” he asked.
“We want everyone to be welcome (at) our Montana university system,” Rogers said, adding some officials have testified against some of the proposed sex definition legislation, citing concerns about federal funding laws.
Seth Bodner, University of Montana president, said the university’s mission is two words: inclusive prosperity.
“We work really hard to cultivate an inclusive (atmosphere) on campus,” he said, adding there is support in place for people to engage.
He said a group of students made their voices widely known in a March 10 protest about proposed legislation that the UM campus is a place of inclusion.
Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University, said the school focuses on diversity inclusion.
“It’s important for us to speak with courage about these important (things),” she said.
Cruzado said she was proud of the fact that at MSU it is the straight students who have taken it upon themselves to protect the LGBTQ students.
“It’s a goal about diversity, understanding and inclusion,” she said. “We don’t win if we live people behind.”
She told the father to tell his child there are wonderful opportunities in Montana.