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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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.