Tomorrow, the University of Montana will honor its 113th graduating class. Tradition will be the order of the day; graduates will walk across the stage, hats will be tossed and parents will tearfully rejoice. For a day, graduates will glow with confidence and pride - until tomorrow, when they will be forced to face reality. Following the celebrations, the reality of the Great Recession returns and we must plan how to retool our state for a robust recovery. First, Montana's public education system has to be high-quality and it must provide value if we are to rebuild our economy to compete in the 21st century world economy. Today, workers must be highly educated and technically skilled, and that can only be achieved by earning a college degree. Although a college degree is a requirement in today's global economy, a quick look at Montana's higher education policy would lead you to believe otherwise. In fact, Montana's higher education system has suffered a steady decrease in state funding over the past 25 years. For example, in 1983 the state of Montana provided about $7 in state support for every $1 paid in tuition by in-state students. Today, the state provides less than $1 for every $1 of tuition paid by the student. The class of 2010 can feel the effect. With the diplomas distributed tomorrow, so too is an obligation to pay back an average $20,000 in loans which, by the time they are repaid, will have cost the graduate $60,000. These reductions have come at a time when support for higher education is needed more than ever. If we continue on this path, we will hit a 25-year low in state support next year. Consequently, our higher education institutions have been forced to raise tuition and place the cost of education squarely on students. Montana universities will again rank near the bottom, nationally, in state funding per student. These policies violate a sacred American promise that each generation will do better than the next. These continuous state funding cuts result from shifting educational dollars to our dysfunctional health care system. Mandated health care payments have increased by nearly 10 percent per year, and in spite of recent "reform" there is no end is sight. Our graduates now carry that burden in student loan debt while faculty and staff, like most of us, see their wages shrink and their premiums explode. These skewed priorities punish our students, faculty and staff while jeopardizing the economic future of our state and nation. When most of our elected state officials attended college, the bulk of their costs were paid by the GI bill and government aid. Now, Pell Grants only support half of the educational costs that they used to and Montana has virtually no state-based financial aid. The baby boomers, many of whom are now community and state leaders, owe their children and grandchildren the same opportunities that they enjoyed: a high-quality, affordable college education. We believe that this is a major injustice and, furthermore, education should be a civil right of the 21st century. As a civil right, affordability and access to a quality, college education extends to every Montanan. According to the Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana, which advocates for the substantial and growing population of students with disabilities, the UM disability support office serves more registered students with disabilities than all of the other Montana campuses combined. The UM-Main Campus also has the responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations for students from the College of Technology and Bitterroot College. Because of this, UM needs funding in proportion to the number of students being served. Therefore, an equitable higher education policy should be a top priority for the 2010 legislative session. We appeal to your sense of social and economic justice here in our state. We ask that you join us in advocating for the civil right of the 21st century. Contact you legislator and the governor. Ask them to ensure that all Montanans have the opportunity for a quality education so they can achieve the American dream. The future of our state and our nation depend on it.
Jared Trilling, Patrick Rhea and Faith Dawson write on behalf of the UM Higher Education Opportunity Coalition, which is made up of the Associated Students of the University of Montana, Montana Public Interest Research Group, Alliance for Disability and Students of the University of Montana, Students for Economic and Social Justice, University Faculty Association and Montana Public Employees Association.