Election Eve: College affordability, opportunity mark Tester, Williams message to UM students

University of Montana student John Bowers and Sen. Jon Tester talk about the Federal TRIO Program on Monday. Tester and House candidate Kathleen Williams met with students to discuss issues ahead of tomorrow’s election. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current. )

Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams met with University of Montana students on Monday in one last push before Tuesday’s pivitol midterm election.

Tester, who is seeking his third term as the state’s senior senator, said college students and those who are starting their lives are the main reasons he’s fighting for a better future.

“I said this the first time I ran, and I believe it today. I would not be running for this position if it wasn’t for the people of your age,” he said. “Folks who are going to college, folks who are going to high school, middle school and grade school. Folks who are starting their family. Because quite frankly, this is your world that we’re renting from you.”

Tester and Williams talked about public lands, climate change and emphasized college affordability. Tester said that his brothers were able to pay for nine months of college from one summer job in the 1960s.

“When it comes to things like Pell Grants, when it comes to things like investment by the state of Montana, those things are important to drive down tuition costs,” he said. “Because there are a lot of folks out there who don’t have enough money to be able to go to school who have an incredible mind, and we don’t want to take those folks out of the picture.”

Williams, who is running against Rep. Greg Gianforte, said enforcing vocational training in high schools and encouraging students to strive for certificates and associate degrees will give more people an opportunity to receive higher education at a more affordable rate.

“When I went to college, it was $365 a quarter, and pretty much anyone could go,” Williams told the Missoula Current. “So that’s changed, and we need to ensure that four-year institutions are affordable, but also that there’s sort of a multi-layered set of opportunities.”

Quality public education from the start of someone’s academic career is also a vital part in getting a college education, Williams said.

“Education really is the equalizer. If you have the opportunity to have a quality education from pre-K all the way through, you can compete in this world. We need to make sure we aren’t aggravating the income divide that has just only (been) growing in America. That is not what my father wanted for me and not what I want for you guys,” Williams said to the student audience.

It’s common for people who go straight into the workforce to have two or three jobs for the rest of their lives, Tester said. Working with programs like the Federal TRIO Program are also important to maintaining affordable higher education.

UM freshman John Bowers said the TRIO Program, which helps first generation and low-income college students, has helped him get to college. He said he appreciated that Tester acknowledges the program and plans to support funding for it from the federal level.

Tester’s opponent, Matt Rosendale, hasn’t really addressed TRIO, Bowers said, and that concerns him. The program is supported through the U.S. Department of Education.

“I like TRIO because I joined it as soon as I got out of middle school and it was so much better and more helpful than sitting around my house all summer,” Bowers said. “I honestly probably wouldn’t have gone to college if I hadn’t had that experience with them.”

Williams focused on climate change and the state of the environment for future generations. She noted Gianforte’s unwillingness to accept the validity of science and acknowledge the reality of climate change.

Williams has a 35-year background in outdoor recreation, natural resources and water policy.

“I know you guys, after you’ve worked hard on your exams, and your finals, and your papers and your essays, you want to go skiing, right? So, we need to be talking about climate change. We need to be figuring out how to provide leadership on that issue and have an adult conversation,” Williams said.

Monday’s event also included Rex Renk, who is running for clerk of the Montana Supreme Court. While the race has gotten little attention, Renk emphasized the importance of fair and equal access to court records and a constitutional right to individual privacy, all alongside his dinosaur mascot.

Renk endorsed Williams and Tester and encouraged everyone in the audience to tell three people to vote. It’s the most important election since dinosaurs roamed the earth, he said.

“Look, it’s up to you guys to make sure that true leadership and integrity do not go extinct tomorrow,” Renk said.