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Tuesday, May 22, 2001 MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL

SUMMARY: Raising the cost of higher education is better than cutting back on quality, but whopping tuition increases will exact a toll.

Montana's Board of Regents did what it had to do last week by raising tuition at the state's universities and colleges. Without higher tuition, the university system wouldn't have the money to offer students a credible education.

But make no mistake. The decision to substantially raise tuition will close the door to higher education to some students. It'll encourage others to enroll in schools elsewhere in the country, and it guarantees that more Montanans will load up their cars and head for greener pastures elsewhere after graduation. Finally, it underscores the utter foolishness of politicians who promise "no new taxes."

The regents voted to raise tuition for most Montana university and college students by a whopping 13 percent and also to raise mandatory fees charged to all students. The average student at the University of Montana will see tuition and fees climb a total of $382 next fall. The regents also signaled their intent to raise tuition a like amount the following year.

The Legislature's failure to fully fund the university system left the regents no choice. Belt-tightening sometimes can work when dealing with short-term budget problems, or when you've got a budget larded with luxuries. But while a candy company might get away with shrinking its chocolate bars, a university system courts disaster by paring away its offerings. Quality matters. While the price of a college degree is no trivial matter, what's more important is the value. Raising tuition is the only way the university system has at this point to maintain the value of its offerings.

However, the increase in tuition and fees will make it just that much harder for some people to afford to pursue their education. These are whopping increases for which their is no offsetting increase in wages.

As tuition rises at Montana campuses, more students are bound to consider colleges in other states. Although they may be well able to afford Montana tuition, some students will decide they get more education for the dollars elsewhere. Meanwhile, many of the students who simply absorb the tuition increase will graduate with even larger student-loan debts. It's not easy to make a living in this state to start with, and large student loans to pay off don't make Montana's last-in-the nation wages any more attractive. Bottom line: More of our best and brightest will hit the road in search of jobs that pay enough to retire their school debts.

Who pays higher tuition and fees? Well, students, of course. And their families. Businesses and employers wind up paying, too. The cost and quality of higher education affect the competitiveness and profitability of employers who rely on the university system for new employees and other assistance. And anything that stifles higher education and costs students, families and employers more winds up rippling through the entire economy. We all pay, directly or indirectly. And that should expose politicians who crow about holding the line on taxes as frauds. Relying on such massive tuition increases to balance education budgets doesn't save Montanans any money. By making Montana's campuses less accessible and less competitive, the actual cost of higher tuition for Montana and its economy may be greater than anyone cares to admit.

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