By Martin J. Kidston
Despite a decline in the local population, Montana State University-Northern is staying competitive by expanding its ability to meet the needs of a broad range of students.
Unlike other state universities in Missoula, Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls, MSU-Northern is surrounded by a region where the population trends are in the decline.
Hill County and all the surrounding counties, from which our school grew, are declining significantly in population, MSU-Northern Chancellor Mike Rao said. As a result, we assume there may be a commensurable decline in school enrollment, and that means a decline in budget.
Rao said that between 1994 and 1998, MSU-Northern lost approximately 200 FTE students which resulted in a budget reduction of nearly $1.3 million.
The response to that was, if we were starting to see a decline in the population that we serve, rather than reduce the size of Northerns enrollment, we wanted to stabilize it, if not increase it, Rao said. Havre and our immediate area has always come first when it comes to our focus, but it cant be to the exclusion of the areas that are growing.
To counter the downward population trends, Northern has begun to diversify, adding distance learning programs and regional marketing strategies while maintaining a thorough campus focus.
Our distance learning programs have made up for some of the FTE losses, Rao said, and the re-introduction of the football program is attracting a population to Northern that otherwise wouldnt come.
Whats more, Rao said efforts are being made to acquire NCATE accreditation a highly sought after certification for education majors. The school has also adopted a think regionally philosophy, recruiting prospective students from a broad geography by marketing Northerns unique programs, quality education and student excellence.
But for every student who attends the Northern campus, Rao said there are those, for one reason or another, who cannot commit to four years in Havre.
The fact is there are more and more place-bound people out there who tell us there is no way they can spend four years on campus, Rao said, explaining the importance of distance learning. We are trying to figure out ways to facilitate contact with them, which might include different time tables, sending faculty members to meet with students in other communities and utilizing two-way televisions.
Were concerned about maintaining a balance, Rao said. And because we are doing things beyond Havre does not mean that we are discluding Havre.
Since 1998, Rao said the school has seen a small increase in its number of FTE students, indicating that Northerns strategies are beginning to benefit the campus community.