Montana Viewpoint


The policy of making college more expensive is a disservice to all Montanans

September 1, 2003

When Chuck Denowh, who is the Executive Director of the Montana Republican Party, recently blamed the Montana University System for a recent tuition increase, he set a new political standard for deflecting responsibility. It takes a fixed amount of money to run the universities, and when the Republican controlled legislature cuts funding, as they have for the past several sessions, the Regents have to make up the difference by raising tuition. In the past ten years the state’s share of funding has dropped from 78% to 34%, and tuition has gone up proportionately in response to that decline.

Denowh says that the universities should cut costs instead. I used to agree with him. In fact, in those distant days when the Democrats ran the legislature, I used to vote against increased university funding. When the Republicans took over, I voted with them to lower funding. I don’t now, and I’ll tell you why: I realized I was denying today’s kids the very gift that my parents’ generation gave me; a quality college education at low cost. That doesn’t mean it was a free ride, there was seldom a time in my college years when I didn’t hold down a job.

In the past few years states have cut university funding, and it’s not just to balance the budget, it’s a change in attitude about the benefits of education. The whipping that the Soviet Union gave us in 1958 by being the first to put a satellite into orbit prompted an enormous dispersal of federal money for higher education. Congress responded to the crisis with the creation of the National Defense Education Act. Its purpose was to increase America’s ability to compete scientifically by making a college education attainable for more Americans. Why? Because they knew that every educated citizen contributes to our nation’s greatness, and we had fallen behind.

Obviously, there’s been a shift in attitude over the years, and the history of that shift is important for us to understand. In 1857 a Republican senator from Vermont named Justin Morrill began his push to provide a low cost quality education for Americans. His plan was to enable states to establish colleges by giving each state 30,000 acres of federal land for every congressional member it had. The states could then dispose of the land, and use the proceeds to support the colleges. When Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 it was the beginning of the Land-Grant College system.

It was unique to America, and for the first time in history, regular people had access to a college education. My family knows full well the value of the Land-grant colleges. Even though my dad was just a poor farm kid from Minnesota, he was able to work his way through a Land-grant college. So was his brother, my Uncle John, and so was I.

Initially, the Land-grant Colleges were agricultural and technical colleges. Today, even though they have expanded and offer courses in many other disciplines, agriculture and technology are still a major focus. Montana State University is a Land-grant university.

Congress’ reasoning in 1959 when it passed the National Defense Education Act was the same as Morrill’s one hundred years earlier: an educated citizenry makes a nation strong. While it’s true that a college education benefits the individual greatly, it benefits society more, was the philosophy, and so it should be made as affordable as possible. In short, what benefits our society as a whole should be paid for by our society as a whole.

Nowadays we regard a college education as being more of a benefit to the individual than society, and they can darn well pay for it themselves. Well, the philosophy may have changed, but the facts havenÕt; an educated citizenry drives the economy, and that is true now more than ever. If you want real proof of that, the GI Bill that provided a college education to the servicemen and servicewomen who won World War II ignited the greatest economic growth in America’s history.

When we refuse to fund our Land-grant colleges, we make it difficult, if not impossible, for those kids who need a college or vo-tech education the most to get one—regular kids from regular working Montana families. No one wants a kid to have a hard time in life, but lack of a college degree in today’s world practically guarantees a crummy job with crummy wages. Those kids who do bust their butt to go to college go into serious debt at 18 years old, and it takes them 20 years to get out of it.

Just as an educated citizenry benefits us all, denying kids a college education harms us all. Not only does our national economy suffer, we eventually pay a cost for those kids who would have benefited from a college education, but couldn’t afford it. For instance, because they aren’t qualified for decent jobs, they can’t afford health insurance and eventually use more government services such as Medicaid and Medicare.

We can pick up the tab for those kids later, or, for a lot less money, we can give the least among us a low cost decent education. It’s up to us.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620