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University of Montana campus, Missoula

University of Montana campus

Put a dollar toward higher education, and society gets back $3.65, or even four bucks.

So said economist Bryce Ward this week on "A New Angle," a podcast produced by University of Montana associate professor of marketing Justin Angle.

The economist shared other returns on investment as well, and the estimates are timely.

This year, Montana voters will decide whether to continue their support for a levy that funds higher education. On his most recent episode, Angle talked with Ward about the economics behind public education, and he visited with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte about their views of education and its function in society.

Said Tester, a Democrat and former teacher: "I was told at a very young age, and I believe this to my core, that public education is one of the reasons our democracy has flourished for the last 200 years, or survived for the last 200 years, however you want to look at it.

Said Gianforte, a Republican, about the levy: "This funding allows education to be more affordable, which is a benefit to all Montana families."

On the podcast, Angle said he reached out to the office of Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, but his staff did not respond. Nonetheless, the episode features views from a Democrat, a Republican and an economist citing research on higher education.

The key question Angle explores: "What does Montana look like with weaker higher education institutions?"

***

History and a recent poll suggest Montanans are inclined to support the levy despite some fatigue with property taxes, at least in the Missoula area.

Statewide, every 10 years voters have approved the six mill levy, and earlier this year, the UM Big Sky Poll found 72 percent of Montanans would vote to continue paying for it.

In the podcast, the politicians presented their views of education based on their personal experiences, and Ward, associate director of the UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, shared the numbers tied to public investments in higher education. This levy contributes some $19 million a year to the Montana University System.

A study conducted in 2003 in Texas and then again in 2005 in California calculated that for ever dollar spent on higher education, society gains $3.65 to $4 in a variety of ways, such as lower crime rates and less use of public assistance, Ward said.

"Higher education has pretty big, pretty substantial returns, and so that's why ultimately you tend to observe this and tend to have support for some level of public involvement in higher education," Ward said on the podcast.

The state gets a 19 percent return from the additional tax income on earnings boosted due to higher education, he said: "That means there’s more money in our economy, and ultimately, there’s a return that pays back the investment."

On the other hand, Ward also said the numbers are just one part of the analysis. In a phone call, he said the returns on investment don't shed light on other outcomes of higher education, such as producing graduates who are more likely to participate in democracy.

"What's the value to society from this whole collective thing? The tax thing is ancillary, a piece of that, a spillover. But it's an incomplete measure."

***

Tester and Gianforte talked about some of the reasons they value education and the role they believe it plays in society.

Tester, who also has served on a school board, said he comes from a family tradition of sending people to college, and he believes it's one of the reasons his family members have seen successes. He attributed his own political career to his higher education degree.

"I wouldn't be here today as a United States senator from the state of Montana had I not went out and got a bachelor of science in music," Tester said. "I think it's very, very important in building the whole person."

In the podcast, Angle said UM President Seth Bodnar has been speaking about the importance of education in developing leaders, and he wanted to know Tester's view. Tester said teaching students how to think critically is important, and it doesn't happen by accident.

"I think that critical thinking is a foundational element to leadership, to be able to sort through the baloney, so to speak," Tester said.

Gianforte, an entrepreneur whose foundation has donated to higher education, talked about the need to foster creativity in students from a young age. He also talked about the ways he was able to build a successful business; Gianforte co-founded a software company in Bozeman that Oracle bought in 2012 for $1.8 billion.

Outside Montana, he said he's seen a children's business fair that fans youngsters' innate energy and creative abilities. The children are so young, they haven't learned that things are impossible, he said, and they're undaunted when it comes to trying new things like climbing up a tree or jumping in a lake.

"If you say, 'Hey, do you want to start a business?' They say, 'Sure. Let's do that.' They don't know that it's hard," Gianforte said.

As a result, some students involved in the fair build things with their own hands and earn real money doing so, even on the order of hundreds or thousands of dollars a weekend, he said.

"They've got that seed of an experience that they can take forward with them," Gianforte said. "I think there's more of that we could do here in Montana."

To gain support for the levy and higher education, the politicians said campuses must present an appealing message and use their best storytellers.

Gianforte said institutions of higher learning must broadcast the benefits of affordable college degrees, which include keeping students in Montana. Tester recommended tapping students, who on a daily basis live the experience and growing costs of higher education, to spread the word.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.