Students, campus officials, and others urged lawmakers to resist the up to $25 million budget cut proposed for the Montana University System (MUS) budget. They said it would reverse a decade of gains made to keep higher education accessible and affordable for low- and middle-income students.
Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian told the joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, officials are considering increasing tuition; cutting programs, faculty and staff; or a combination of the two.
“Any of those scenarios has dramatic impacts to students,” he said.
On top of that, said Deputy Commissioner for Planning Analysis Tyler Trevor is a possible reduction in money for scholarships.
“You’re increasing your tuition rates at the same time you’re dropping your financial aid availability,” Trevor said. “That leads to a situation where at the end of 10 years of excellent progress of affordability - leading the nation - we are going to leave students, those in the middle-income and lower-income groups struggling to find access to higher education.”
Trevor handed out a packet that showed Montana ranks 48th in the nation in total state funding per student. Its flagship campuses – Montana State University and the University of Montana – also have fewer employees and higher student to staff ratio’s when compared to its peer institutions around the country.
The Montana Constitution gives the Regents the authority to divvy up and manage the lump sum amount of money appropriated from the Montana Legislature. For the last 10 years, the governor, legislative leaders, and university system officials had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that froze tuition in 3 out of the 5 biennia in exchange for additional state dollars. There’s no MOU this time.
UM, MSU Billings, and Great Falls College MSU have already made deep cuts in their current budgets.
“I realize this year has been fiscally challenging. Revenues are not as high as we would like” said student Regent Levi Birky, referring to the budget cuts lawmakers are considering across the spectrum. “But putting more of a financial burden on college students is not the solution, especially when less students will attend college simply because they cannot afford it.”
Birky told lawmakers he is the first one in his family to go to college.
“As much as spending my summers working for my dad’s logging business taught me about hard work,” he said. “It’s been my college experience that has fundamentally changed my life for the better.”
Sam Forstag, president of the Associated Students of UM, said while they appreciate that the tuition freeze has helped keep the price down for students, “There are still far too many who are forced to work 1, 2 or 3 jobs – myself included, I worked 2-3 jobs up until this year – just to afford cost of attendance.”
“There are far too many students who are faced with juggling these jobs as well as a full class load so they can graduate on-time and join the Montana economy,” Forstag said.
Andy Bixler of Montana Associated Students said a college student’s finances are already shaky, “A lot of us are a broken car, or an illness, or a severe trauma away from not being able to afford to go to school anymore.”
Bixler said investing in higher represents a commitment to Montanans who believe “that they can improve the lot in life and provide for themselves and their families if they just work hard.”
Other students talked about the burden of student loan debt.
The joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education will continue hearing the higher education budget this week. A vote is scheduled next week.