Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Looks like I’ll be paying University of Montana tuition again next semester. I’ll be one of the lucky ones. Because one of the saddest ironies is that in this time of economic crisis we are going to see higher education price itself out of the range of a large chunk of the public.

There will be lots of demands on next year’s State of Montana budget including help for the unemployed, health care for the elderly and those who can’t afford it, school for everyone’s children, and continued protection of our natural resources. Universities and colleges could find themselves at the back of a long line, and it is going to be all too easy for our state legislators to skip their responsibility to fully fund them. The argument will be that there are lots of other revenue sources for the universities, such as tuition, research grants, and private donation. Whereas, other needy government services have few alternatives.

In doing so, state legislators will be continuing the privatization of our colleges and universities. The state now pays less than a quarter of the costs of running higher education. The rest the university has to raise.

However, it is privatization without a plan. The state legislators, and the long line of Governors who have overseen this revenue shift, haven’t thought through exactly what the consequences would be. While many were politically happy to shift it to a user-pays system, those same people had no plan on how the best and brightest in our state would be able to afford to pay. Tuition levels have sky-rocketed, eligibility for financial aid has tightened, and scholarship support for public universities is now being spread even more thinly across many more people who need it. Just like there are those who say not everyone should own a home, we now hear that not everyone should expect the opportunity to go to college.

As universities and colleges face this new reality they, too, have begun operating more and more like a business. They seek out the students who are most likely to be able to pay. They prioritize the students who will graduate the fastest. And they lavish attention on the athletes who keep our alumni cheering on with their donations. The next step will be enrollment caps as they struggle to offer classes for less money. Majors will be cut as professional degrees that involve a lot of laboratory time, field experiences, and specialized instruction will be replaced by large classrooms teaching basic skills and universal subjects like English, Math, Economics, and History. It will be a necessary efficiency in times of reduced funding.

Our public universities and colleges have been severed from the public. We have turned education from a public good (available and beneficial to all in our society) into a private good (available and beneficial only to those who can afford to pay). Whatever happened to the great promise of equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, circumstance, or financial status? Why are President Dennison (of the University of Montana) and President Gamble (of Montana State University) out in the public decrying the educational, economic, and social injustice of the systems they oversee? Their duty should be the provision of a high quality education for all those capable at a cost all can afford.

We used to see higher education as an investment in our children, their talents, and their future contributions to our state. It was all about hope and promise and a firm belief in the goodness of everyone’s kids. Instead, it seems we’ll be building a second major prison complex in eastern Montana, at a cost of more than $371 million. Somehow, that just doesn’t give me as much hope.

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