1) To what extent will you combat financial barriers (i.e. rising tuition) that students face in their pursuit of higher education?
TESTER: Higher education is critical to Montana’s economy. It is critical for jobs and building America’s middle-class, and every American who dreams of going to college should have the opportunity. That’s why I have long supported Pell Grants as a way [to] help students pay for school. Despite what Congressman Rehberg says, Pell Grants are not the “welfare of the 21st century.” They are a responsible way to ensure that Montana students get a shot at going to college or trade school. One of my first votes in the Senate was to cut the interest rate on student loans in half, and I voted this year to keep that reduced rate in place.
COX: When the government gets involved in subsidizing any industry, the price of those goods or services escalates. If we removed government from the process, the price of schooling would once again become affordable and it wouldn’t take a huge bloated loan to attend.
REHBERG: With careers today requiring more advanced skills, higher education is essential. Unfortunately, the cost of this education continues to rise. Since 1982, the cost of attending college has increased 439 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation. That is why I worked to reform the Pell grant program to preserve it for future generations of students who need it and voted to prevent student loan interest rate increases.
2) Montana State University just completed a long-term strategic plan which includes calls for raising enrollment by 2,000, increasing faculty pay to 80 percent of the national average, priority budgeting and enhancing the student experience. What steps can Montana’s lawmakers take to assist in the pursuit of MSU’s goals?
TESTER: We need to make smart investments in our public education system so Montana’s kids are well prepared to attend our great colleges and universities. And we need to make sure MSU and all of Montana’s colleges are leaders in cutting-edge research in agriculture and resource development so that we attract and maintain world-class professors. This includes supporting research and development at our universities, something the House of Representatives proposed to cut by over $1 billion last year. And we need to promote small businesses in Montana so they can hire these 2,000 additional graduates.
COX: They shouldn’t take any action. Government should get out of the way of higher education. We need private competition to make things more efficient and cost-effective.
REHBERG: The closer to home the choices about education are made, the better those decisions will be. I do not want Washington to micromanage how the Board of Regents runs state schools. That being said, there are broader policies at the federal level, such as supporting K-12 schools so that disadvantaged students are prepared for higher education and financial assistance so that low and middle income students can afford higher education, that are critical to a successful state university system.
3) Are Montana’s universities spending student and public money efficiently?
TESTER: Yes, but when it comes to taxpayers’ money, we need to look for ways to be even more efficient. All public money must be invested in common sense ways that improve higher education while keeping college affordable in Montana. As a public servant, I take this responsibility very seriously.
COX: How could they? If they aren’t run like a true private business, then they have no incentive to do anything but increase their budgets at taxpayer and/or student expenses.
REHBERG: We want our education dollars to be spent as efficiently as possible. Policy makers should work with students, professors and administrators to develop strategies that lower college costs to save both student and taxpayers money.
Note: Denny Rehberg’s answers to the above answers were received the day after publication on October 26th, 2012, and were added to this article on October 27th, 2012.