The Montana Board of Regents has been deliberating since the beginning of the year on whether or not they will have to increase tuition for students at Montana’s Universities. They finally came up with the answer to students’ questions last Friday. Their answer; a 10% increase in tuition over the next two years.
One may wonder how the Regents came to their decision. If we look back over the past few months, from the beginning of the 2011 Montana Legislative session, until now, the unsettling truth is that the decision that the Regents made is less about education and more about politics.
With a Republican majority in the legislature and a Democratic Governor, tension was inevitable. Governor Schweitzer delivered an unsustainable budget to legislators, who immediately began looking in all areas where money could be saved, this included higher education. From that moment the talk around the State has been that the legislature is going to cut $32 million from higher education funding, which was based on their immediate cut of 5% to all areas of the budget. The legislature made the financially responsible decision to first take money out of the budget, and then put it back into certain areas later if the money became available, rather than keeping the money there and having to take it out later or raise taxes. Members of the BOR, all seven of whom were appointed by Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, began begging the legislature not to cut funds for higher education.
With all the talk of massive funding cuts and tuition increases, one would expect the Regents to be involved in the process and give more input than just their disapproval of the cuts. However, the Regents were virtually silent on specifics. Chairman Clayton Christian said that tuition won’t be discussed until the Boards May meeting. “As soon as the session is over in odd years, the board will meet in May and set tuition, said Clay Christian, chairman of the Board of Regents.”
The Regents said that they wanted students to be involved in the process, yet they chose to meet after all the universities were out for the summer. They also chose to meet in the very obscure location of Kalispell, MT in the far north western part of the state. The combination of timing and location promised very little student involvement. Students and lawmakers have voiced their frustration at the Regents for not discussing tuition sooner.
There was virtual silence on the matter when the legislature put millions of dollars back into higher education funding at the end of the session. The final cut in funding was $13.8 million, well under half of what was expected. The Regents suddenly had almost $20 million dollars more to work with than they expected. So you would expect that tuition wouldn’t need to be increased, or maybe by just a few percent. Nope. The BOR slapped Montana students with a double digit increase of 10%.
The BOR’s decision was nearly unanimous; “Todd Buchanan, a regent from SBillings, was the only member of the board to vote against tuition increases. He said he was concerned that many Montana students couldn’t afford to pay for the increases and that there hasn’t been enough discussion about alternative methods of funding higher education.” Students couldn’t even have faith in their own student Regent, Teresa Borrenpohl, a graduate student at MSU, to give the common sense input that Regent Buchanan did.
The part of this that is the most troubling is that the cuts were done for political and personal gain, not to better Montana’s education system. Higher education officials who were either appointed by the Regents, or work under them, have spent months degrading the Republican controlled Montana Legislature, while praising Governor Schweitzer’s budget. So when the legislature didn’t cut $32 million, they still had to push across their tuition increases and attempt to blame it on the legislature. Why? Because they had to continue making their job provider (Schweitzer) look good. Ever heard of the spoils system? Regents also needed to dip their hands into students’ pockets in order to continue paying for the extravagant lifestyles of their own appointed administrators.
Higher education administrators are among the highest paid public employees in the state, even making more than the Governor of Montana. “Currently, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom and Montana State University President Waded Cruzado are the highest paid employees at $280,000 per year. The Commissioner of Higher Education, Sheila Sterns, is paid $211,000 per year.”
In addition to their grossly inflated salaries, the Presidents also receive tax payer funded houses, cars, and memberships to a country club. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom recommended that students pay 9% more in tuition, but hasn’t offered to drop any of his own perks.
These tax payer funded, public employees are living the good life, while the average income of a Montana household is about $42,000
We know who will be affected by these tuition hikes, families, who are already struggling to pay for school, and we know who won’t be affected, the MUS administration. The question is: who is really to blame for tuition hikes; the publicly elected, greedy Republican legislators who got paid $10.33 per hour, or the poor, appointed administrators of the Montana University System? Folks, I have seen the waste, and I’m sure that $13.8 million of it can be found. The price tag wouldn’t have to be put on the backs of students, if we could cut the politics out of education.