Election Choices will Chart Direction for Higher Ed

We students often find our candidate choices unsatisfying and the prospects for real change bleak. But when it comes to higher education funding, the choices are real and the consequences can be directly felt across the state.

Montana’s universities serve as pillars for the state’s economy and its residents’ success. Our lawmakers must make a steadfast commitment to the value of college education if our universities are to continue to flourish and become accessible to all Montanans.

Of course, such transformative education does not always come cheap.

Along with entitlements, public services, K-12 schools and corrections, higher education marks one of the state’s largest expenses. Every two years, the governor’s office presents a budget proposal to the Montana legislature for debate, revision and approval. Higher education receives one lump sum appropriation, then the Board of Regents — the group overseeing the Montana University System (MUS) — allocates state money as it creates our universities’ budgets.

State contributions currently comprise around 37 percent of MUS general unrestricted funds, behind tuition and fees, which make up 58 percent. That number is down from 74 percent in 1988, meaning that over the last 25 years, the state’s share of higher-ed funding has been cut in half.

In 2011, Montana legislators — 20 percent of whom did not have a bachelor’s degree —  leveled more than $17 million in cuts to higher education, and the Board of Regents responded by raising tuition five percent each year. Tuition now makes up 58 percent of the system’s revenue.

Such dwindling financial support from the state has caused college students to reach deeper and deeper into their pocketbooks. Montana graduates today leave college with an average of $24,000 in debt.

Despite this, Montana’s universities have continued to increase enrollment, research and graduates. Driven by strong leadership, MSU in particular is emerging as one of our state’s greatest treasures. Lawmakers ought to match that leadership by bringing to the table a long-term vision for higher-ed funding.

The plans brought forth by those vying for Montana’s gubernatorial position fall short of such vision.

Rick Hill has emphasized priority budgeting, saying universities, like other government institutions, need to self-scrutinize their programs and expenditures. If tuition is the primary concern of MUS schools, Hill remarked during a debate in Billings, then they should construct their budgets accordingly.

While the call for frugal institutions is laudable, Montana’s universities already seem one step ahead. MSU’s strategic plan, for example, reflects years of serious goal-setting and development of accountability metrics. Our universities are demonstrating an ability to prioritize budgets. Moreover, so much emphasis on efficiency runs the risk of turning universities into degree factories and limiting the depth of learning that makes higher education so valuable.

Steve Bullock, meanwhile, has said he will push to freeze tuition for the next two years, arguing that budgets reflect societal values. But a temporary freeze on tuition is a mere stopgap, not a framework for the future.

With next spring’s legislative session on the horizon, funding for higher education is sure to be a contentious issue among Montana’s incoming lawmakers. Their decisions will influence the direction of Montana’s university system and of the state as a whole. That process begins on Nov. 6, when Montanans have a chance to turn their values into votes.

For links to more information and data on Montana university funding, visit msuexponent.com/election2012.