Last Wednesday, Governor Steve Bullock met with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s editorial board and got the attention of many Montanans with his suggestion that Montana’s Board of Regents might have to consider closing a college campus to help make up for the 23.3 million in funding cuts proposed by the current Legislature (http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/montana_state_university/bullock-raises-possibility-of-closing-state-campus/article_7cc39c51-fafa-5013-86df-d37e12bf5b1e.html). The Governor’s proposal would keep funding at the current levels, but the Republican proposal cuts funding by 5% due to a drop in revenues. Some consider Bullock’s suggestion hyperbole intended to inflame the ire of Montana students and families, and Kevin McRae of the Commissioner’s office noted that he has not heard any suggestions of campus closings.
However, many people involved in higher education argue that the Montana University System provides an important service, educating Montana’s citizens and future leaders, and Governor Bullock noted in his State of the State Address on January 24th that Montana support for higher education has gone up since 2009—contrasted with 46 other states whose support was reduced—because Montanans appreciate the investment in their most valuable resource: ourkids. Political rhetoric often calls on investing in methods of preventing “brain drain,” the exportation of our best and brightest, but Bullock also noted in his Address that 80% of our resident students are currently employed in Montana, up from 74% in 2009 (http://governor.mt.gov/Newsroom/ArtMID/28487/ArticleID/5581). This is important not only for the economy of our state but because Montanans want their children and their grandchildren to be able to stay in Montana while also earning a standard of living that allows them to provide for their families. Brain drain is not only an economic threat to our state but also a threat to the cultural fabric that Montanans enjoy and value.
To put the 23.3 million reduction in funding in perspective, the Missoulian reported that six of the university system’s colleges are at or below 23 million, and in fact, Helena College’s entire allotment, for example, is only 5.8 million (http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/what-happens-after-gov-steve-bullock-suggests-closing-a-college/article_d0b6b9aa-0855-5c19-add7-1aa6b48b3b00.html). Full disclosure, as an employee of Helena College, I see on a daily basis the efforts of dozens of people to make the most of the College’s financial resources while keeping tuition at a reasonable level. Helena College has the lowest tuition in the state at just over $3000 full time tuition for an academic year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the difference between the weekly pay of a person who holds an associate’s degree and one who has only a high school diploma averages to about $120 (https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2016/data-on-display/education-matters.htm). That amount times 52 weeks in one year amounts to $6240, more than the two-year tuition of a Helena College student.
Montanans tend to be an independent lot; though we often vote red as a state, we tend to favor the individual or the principle over ideology, and the value of our families and their futures are definitely priorities.