More Montanans Turning to College Amid Recession

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana’s commissioner of higher education said Thursday that more people are turning to colleges and vocational training amid the ongoing recession, telling lawmakers the phenomenon makes budget woes even more difficult.

Sheila Stearns told those mapping the state’s spending plan that the increase in students could create pressures on the university system budget.

She said enrollment is up 3.2 percent since last year, about three times the normal increase.

“I guess that may be what you expect from an economy that is faltering,” she told the House Appropriations Committee. “They turn, and well they should, to education opportunity.”

The House Appropriations Committee is fine-tuning the state’s main budget, known as House Bill 2, this week. It goes to the House floor March 16.

The lawmakers have trimmed a bit from the higher education budget that Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed in December, which was cut significantly from his original mid-November proposal.

But committee Chairman Jon Sesso said federal stimulus money could help areas like higher education that have been steadily trimmed ever since the governor’s original November proposal.

The Butte Democrat said the $800 million in federal money hits his panel next week.

Sesso called the increased enrollment for spring semester “a real consequence of our economic times.”

“Efforts are under way to try to put more money, particularly in the two-year colleges, in the system through the stimulus,” he said.

Stearns said she recognizes that House Bill 2 will not be the final word on budgeting like it has been in past years. She said dwindling state support would make it hard for the Board of Regents to keep tuition increases at bay.

She said two-year colleges are going to have crowded class rooms and a tough time finding money to hire additional adjunct faculty.

“The Board of Regents will do their level best to control, and perhaps not have, tuition increases,” Stearns said. “But we have to work together to keep tuition affordable.”

The K-12 education system is also seeking more money from lawmakers, but didn’t get much help on Thursday.

Next week’s work in committee on the stimulus spending is expected to crystalize the muddy budget picture. Schweitzer is expected to release his suggestion for the money on Friday.

The House expects to have completed action on both pieces of the budget picture before the end of the month.

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