Cut ’em out?!

The Montana University system seems to be facing a budget crisis. Not as bad as California, where the universities are raising tuition by 32 per cent, but enough that all employees, professors and staff, are seeing a wages freeze.

So, it must be time for some bold ideas – either cut some significant costs or find a new source of revenue. How about we close down one or more of the campuses?

There are four campuses of Montana State University – Bozeman, Billings, Havre, and Great Falls. Likewise, there are four campuses of the University of Missoula – Missoula, Dillon, Butte, and Helena. Then we can toss in three community colleges – Flathead, Miles City, and Dawson. Add seven tribal colleges and three religious colleges (Carroll, Rocky Mountain College, and the College of Great Falls). Do we really need all 21 of these campuses? Can we afford them?

Let’s take MSU-Northern and UM-Western, for example. I understand that in many a year they are run at a loss, subsidized at the expense of the major campuses in Bozeman and Missoula. They’ve had a spotty record of attracting students, so raising tuition would be likely to drive some of the better students to the main campuses.

Whereas tuition and fees at UM-Missoula is $2590.25 per semester in 2009 (in-state, undergraduate), tuition at UM-Western is $1,837.45. At MSU-Bozeman the cost is $2,683.85 and at MSU-Northern it is $2,194.78. Quite the bargain, compared to the California cost of about $4,150 per semester, going up to around $5,150 next fall.

Why do we keep these branch campuses? Certainly it is more affordable for students, both local and from out-of-town, to live in Havre or Dillon. They can continue to work at their family’s business or farm. And some students prefer the education at these smaller, more intimate campuses. But, maybe they should pay extra for the luxury of smaller class sizes and greater access to their professors?

There is, of course, a political reality that says if you want support for state colleges and universities from legislators from SW and N Montana that you need to have colleges and universities in their part of the state. But, it is becoming more and more apparent that legislators from outside of Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Butte would much rather not fund the university system.

Maybe it’s time for Montana to privatize some of these campuses, like Michigan and other states are considering? As I’ve previously pointed out, the State of Montana contributes close to the lowest of any state to the cost of a resident’s college education. So, we’re already close to having privatized our colleges & universities! If students still want to study in far-flung locales, then they should pay to do so?

Lost in all of this discussion is the underlying purpose of state colleges and universities. It is not so much about educational benefit to the individual students, but rather an investment in the wisdom and learning of the state as a whole. If we want educated folks living among us, running our state and making it a better place for all of us, then we should expect to help contribute to that social good. And if the less-populated parts of the state are important to us, and we need to generate knowledge and understanding in those regions, then we should invest there, too. That means greater state support of universities, not less.

The current budget crisis shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of our future (the students), nor the world-class scholars who bring their expertise to the state (the professors). Instead the cause of the crisis should be considered head-on.

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