Senate District 34 Candidates: Michael Comstock (D), Scott Sales (R)

Note: As of this time, Sales has not responded to the Exponent’s questionnaire.

1) To what extent will you combat financial barriers (i.e. rising tuition) that students face in their pursuit of higher education?

COMSTOCK: One of the problems with the cost of education in Montana, be it primary or secondary, is that the state has relatively few people and covers a large area. Most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have populations several times that of the entire state of Montana. Keeping that in mind, Montana has a high ratio of colleges and school districts per person as compared to other states. This is the primary driver of the cost of education in Montana. It seems counter-intuitive, but fewer large institutions would drive down the costs. So our choice is whether to keep the many options available and pay higher costs, or cut the options to lower education costs to students. The bottom line is, somebody has to pay for the choices that we make in Montana regarding education. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is really no such thing as an inexpensive high-quality college education. We get what we pay for.

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?

COMSTOCK: Every college has similar goals, but unfortunately the laws of mathematics dictate that half of all college faculty will be paid less than average. It sounds great when colleges claim that their faculty are paid above average to attract students and teachers, but in reality, that’s not the case. When colleges lobby the legislature, suddenly these same teachers are severely underpaid and the college is underfunded. Really, has anybody ever heard of an adequately funded college anywhere? Such initiatives may increase the quality of education by seeking higher-paid educators, but at a higher cost and with the effect of larger class sizes, more teaching assistants and less access to professors. While 80 percent of the national average pay seems reasonable, that does not take into account that most U.S. campus locations have costs of living several times that of Bozeman. Perhaps seeking faculty that love teaching and living in Montana would serve better than trying to attract those motivated by money and prestige.

3) Are Montana’s universities spending student and public money efficiently?

COMSTOCK: That depends on the definition of “efficiently.” Again, there’s a tradeoff between quality, efficiency and cost. For instance, lower class sizes and more tenured professors may raise quality, but lower efficiency. Building four more Hedges dorms might lower the cost of lodging to students, making housing efficient, but is there a need and a market for high-density student housing? Many students prefer smaller off-campus rentals and the smaller, quaint dorms on campus. With the better lifestyle, comes higher cost and lower efficiency — another trade-off. The most efficient education is one that is online and where students [can] live elsewhere while working full-time jobs. But that popular trend eliminates the half of the college education and experience that students receive [outside] the classroom, but is learned by living on a college campus in a college town, interacting with educators, other students, and developing social skills for coping with the real world.