University of Montana campus, Missoula

The University of Montana's Main Hall in Missoula.

Montana must decide if it will invest in the next generation or abandon them in the category of “superfluous spending.”

The University of Montana spent the past five years cutting award-winning professors, journals, programs and classes. In this context, the legislature responded by spurring an additional 10 percent cut.

The Montana University System operates from two major funding sources: state dollars and tuition. In 1988, state dollars paid for 76 percent of the budget. Today the state pays for 38 percent and students pay for 72 percent.

This makes students the highest-taxed Montanans, many of them paying 150 percent or more of their income to the university system. A university operates like a road with a toll; except everyone in the state decided they didn’t want to pay for roads anymore so the toll became $150. Everyone agrees that would be exorbitant and prohibitive. Why don’t we have the same attitude towards education?

Thomas Jefferson repeatedly wrote that the only way to keep a republic functioning properly was through public education. He said, "There are two subjects, indeed, which I shall claim a right to further as long as I breathe,” one was public education. He understood education as a public good, and a prerequisite to the well-being of liberty. Montana has lost its grasp on the public good, on making an investment in the next generation.

Universities provide spaces for the next generation to formulate ideas, challenge themselves, and think critically about the future. If it costs $7,500 per year to attend school, critical thought becomes a secondary consideration to a lucrative career and debt payments. We must allow future generations the freedom to inquire, debate and develop themselves at universities, rather than limiting the purpose of higher education to finding a career.

As we starve our universities of funding we effectively privatize higher education from the inside out. In order for the university to function, it needs to offer majors that will provide monetary returns: business, finance and so on. If universities seek those monetary returns for programs, private interest becomes central to the university's ability to stay funded. The diminishing public interests running our universities, just as Jefferson understood, threatens democracy itself. Private interests already dominate our government through lobbyists, campaign finance and tax loopholes. We cannot let private interest take over our universities — it threatens our already teetering liberty.

The Montana Legislature must raise revenues and invest in higher education and critical inquiry. The Legislature failed us, and Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian and the Board of Regents failed us by actively participating in the privatization of curriculum. A glance at Montana’s tax structure reveals obvious solutions: anyone who earns over $17,400 in this state pays the same tax rate of 7 percent. If you make $320,000, like the president of UM, you are left with $297,600; whereas if you are a student you pay $7,000 a year, and are likely left with little or nothing.

This tax system attacks those trying to better themselves through education. Most of the legislators carrying out this assault never paid these same premiums; U.S. Sen. Steve Daines paid $820 in tuition in 1988. Montana once invested in higher education, but our politicians brutally attacked the university system.

Jefferson fought for public education, because he understood that creating barriers to education impedes social progress. Our legislators create barriers every year to education, for no other reason than giving $500,000 incomes a break from their massive 7 percent tax burden.

Demand an end to this anti-liberty campaign championed by a legislature hell-bent on depriving the youth and empowering the wealthy.

Cameron Best of Missoula graduated from the University of Montana in 2016 as a geography major with a minor in Climate Change Studies. 

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