In 2017, I joined the 22.7 million Americans in the pursuit of higher education. While I was excited to become a University of Montana Grizzly, it was an expensive club to join.
As an out of state student, every semester I pay just over $10,000 in tuition. I’ve maintained a job – really jobs plural -- throughout college. When I started school I was determined to break the cycle of the broke college student, but I quickly realized that the odds were stacked against me – those odds being expensive housing, student loans, and low wages.
But, the reality is that this norm hasn’t always been true. In 1971, a student had to work just 7 full time weeks on minimum wage to pay for a semester's tuition. This allowed students to attend school full time; ultimately finishing their program quicker, and thus taking out less loans. Today, my peers and I have to work that same job for 21 full time weeks at today's minimum wage – an unrealistic task for any student looking to graduate in 4 years.
In the past 25 years alone, the state’s share of funding for Montana colleges and universities has been slashed by more than half. While the state chipped in 72 percent of funding for Montana universities as recently as 1992, that share hit a new low of less than 35 percent after the Legislature’s cuts last fall.
At Forward Montana, where I work as a field organizer, we collected over 800 stories last year from young Montanans about how they’re making ends meet. Too many of these stories were about young Montanans having to couch surf or stay at shelters to pay their tuition or dropping out of school when they had a surprise medical bill. We deserve better.
The crazy thing about all of this is the incredible economic returns from funding Montana’s public universities and colleges. Students educated in Montana usually stay in Montana – I mean who wouldn’t want to stay in this beautiful state!? – with 80% of graduates reporting that they are working in the state a year after graduation. Plus, between the jobs students work and the jobs created by campuses, we’re contributing a substantial amount to the tax base. A recent study by the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that people with more education do better. Median earnings for Montanans over age 25 rise with education. One recent estimate found that, on average, people with college degrees earn more than $1 million more than those with a high school degree over the course of their careers. College-educated workers are an essential component of a modern economy, which benefits our society. That's why we need to keep tuition and fees for Montanans low and affordable tuition helps ensure that Montana’s kids have access to the ladders of opportunity provided by higher education.
The students of the Montana University System can’t sustain any more cuts. Our legislators need to come together to find practical revenue solutions to ensure that Montana has a future with a skilled workforce not crushed under student loan debt.
Maggie Bornstein is a sophomore at the University of Montana where she studies African-American studies. When she isn't working through her 27 book-long reading list, you can find her registering young Montanans to vote and keeping the Good Food Store in business.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.