Just under two weeks ago, hundreds of students across Montana gathered for rallies at Montana State, the University of Montana and Montana Tech in an attempt to influence lawmakers in Helena to adopt a tuition freeze. The Montana University System Board of Regents vowed only adopt the tuition freeze if the state legislature extended expanded funding for the in-state universities, but many legislators balked at the increased expense. For the past four years, the state legislature moved to keep the tuition costs for all Montana universities at their current level, but such a freeze did not pass this year, students here at MSU could see rising tuition rates year after year.
The average Montana student’s degree also comes with just over $27,500 worth of student debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. While that amount is less than the national average, Montana still easily ranks in the top half of states when it comes to average student debt post-graduation.
At MSU, an in-state student pays $6,800 per year in tuition and potentially up to just over $16,000 when room and board, books and supplies are factored in. For a non-resident, tuition costs over three times as much for the year — such students pay $21,390. Over the course of a four-year degree (assuming that degree only takes four years to complete), costs add up to $27,200 for residents and $85,560 for out-of-state students.
A Growing Issue
Just last year, the national student debt average eclipsed $30,000 when combining federal and private loans, and that number continues to balloon. However, exact estimates are difficult to find because private banks aren’t required to disclose exact figures for student loans. Faced with the ever-growing necessity of a college degree in today’s job market, students often must take out student loans that take decades to pay off, even if those students can find a job in their field, not to mention the rising interest rate on federal student loans. Furthermore, these types of loans usually cannot be refinanced and cannot be discharged even when declaring bankruptcy. Nearly 70 percent of all college graduates took on at least some student debt, and the numbers look much the same here at Montana State.
“My student loan debt is something I think about every day,” said Frank Smiley, a senior at MSU studying political science. Smiley, a non-traditional student, transferred to Montana State after two years at a community college, a decision he made, in part, to save money and avoid some debt. “I haven’t used student debt my entire career. When I decided to transfer, I also decided to go out and work for a year to offset the costs for that initial year. But for two years now, it’s been student debt,” Smiley said.
Even with options such as community college and taking a year off to earn money, Smiley and many other students still emerge from the university with significant debt and must bank on getting a job in their field right after graduation — an increasingly difficult task.
“I think why [I took on student debt] might be different than some other peoples’ reasons because they don’t have a clear avenue for what they want to do after graduation, but for me there’s the hope, the chance, of going into government service, where they would pay it all off when they hire you or make enough to pay it off myself,” Smiley continued. “It’s always been either get my dream job or join the military to pay it off I guess. That’s a lot of money and you can’t really do whatever you’d like, you’ve got to worry about it. I don’t want my parents to have to pay it back or whatever, but that’s just maybe me being proud.”
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Federal Reserve, only slightly more than 27 percent of college graduates work in their specialized undergraduate field after graduation. The number climbs much higher when including graduate fields such as law and medicine. As the economy has improved, however, so have job opportunities for recent graduates, but debt still casts a large shadow.
Kiah Abbey, MSU graduate and the director of the Bozeman branch of the non-profit group Forward Montana, helped organize the MSU tuition freeze rally and she believes that the rallies caught the attention of the state legislature.
“The whole goal was to get the attention of legislators and I think that we accomplished that goal in part. We certainly got some really good press. I wish more students would’ve been there, but the students that were there were really excited and passionate,” Abbe said. “I also know that it’s such a difficult time to get students involved due to finals. But we certainly did get the press hits that we wanted and I think it did make a difference in passing the pay plan.”
Abbey continued on why a sustained tuition freeze is important, “I think that you need to go back to why higher education is so important. I think it brings a richness and a robustness to our state and our community when we have people who are well educated and well educated in the areas that they are really passionate about and want to pursue.”
Beyond a Tuition Freeze
The tuition freeze rally isn’t the only thing that Forward Montana has worked on concerning debt and tuition. Last fall, the group started the “Because Student Debt” project to allow students to express the hurdles and roadblocks created by student debt.
“The Because Student Debt campaign was to raise awareness of the consequences of student debt, what are people having to put off because of student debt. Some people talked about how they’re putting off having families or traveling,” Abbey explains. “It was an opportunity to collect those stories and bring them to the public. All too often, the stories that are told about student debt is that they were lazy or they spent all that money on beer or movies or whatever, and the reality is that most college students are working while going to college, and most students are taking on debt because they have to. Whether that be to pay their rent or pay for groceries or daycare. Even with the tuition freeze, students are taking on an incredible amount of student debt.”
Many students have also had to put off continuing their educations, despite the extra benefits of graduate studies, due to the fear of being more in debt. Others expressed concern about their future prospects due to that debt.
Abbey concluded with her personal take on her debt. “I know that I graduated with student debt and I feel kind of trapped about where I am and not being able to be more mobile and look at jobs. I feel trapped by the amount of debt that I have.”
Luckily for Montana students, the state legislature approved the amended funds for the university system and the Montana University System Board of Regents is expected to officially approve the tuition freeze when they meet in May. However, with the need for a college degree continuing to be extremely important in a competitive job market, students must be wary about taking on that debt but also juggle the pressure and the necessity created by that debt.