Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) More than half of Montanans want more tax dollars spent on higher education — and more than 80% see it as a pathway to upward economic mobility and other benefits.

But Montanans worry about affordability. Just 41% of people less than 45 years old believe college is worth the cost.

That’s according to results of a survey in a report called “Perceptions of Higher Education in Montana” the Montana University System conducted as part of a project funded with a Lumina Foundation grant.

“Higher education adds value in a lot of ways,” said Joe Thiel, director of academic research and policy for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. “We wanted to have a better understanding of how Montanans are feeling about higher education.”

Of the new jobs created in the last decade, the survey said workers with college degrees or certificates are earning $13,000 more on average than those without. Also, most of the new jobs in the last decade have gone to people with a post-secondary degree or certificate.

The Montana Board of Regents received the report on results as part of its most recent agenda packet, and this week, Thiel and Crystine Miller, director of student affairs and engagement in the Commissioner’s Office, discussed the survey and its findings.

“Four big points stood out to us as the most salient,” Miller said.

First, Montanans overwhelmingly see value in higher education, which Miller said is notable because nationally, that result isn’t always the case. She said the outcome holds true across every region, age, income level and education level.

“That is something we should celebrate and really be proud of,” Miller said.

Secondly, she noted the highest value Montanans see in higher education is that it provides them with knowledge and skills that prepare them for jobs and careers. Montanans ranked this purpose as No. 1.

Thirdly, Montanans believe that public higher education in Montana is the highest quality education they can get, Miller said.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents rated four-year public colleges or universities in the state as offering a high-quality education, higher than institutions outside Montana and 1 point higher than private campuses.

But Miller noted Montanans also find affordability to be a steep hurdle and significant concern.

Nearly 9-out-of-10, or 87% of respondents “somewhat or strongly agreed” education beyond high school “offers pathways for upward economic mobility.”

But younger people and parents of teenagers don’t believe there’s a lot of help to pay for college, which Miller said is a concern.

Additionally, just 55% of people 45 years and older think college is worth the cost.

State leaders have worked hard to keep college affordable, and during the last decade or so, Montana has kept tuition relatively low with “buy downs,” or the state picking up the difference in what would otherwise be an increase, Miller said.

At the same time, she said cost is still an issue, especially for lower income families, and it’s time to look at other tools.

“As we move forward, we really need to think about other things available to us,” Miller said.

For example, she said every year, Montana leaves more than $9 million of federal aid on the table because of low completion rates of financial aid forms. She said those dollars are already allocated to Montana, so the state can work to increase the number of students applying for it.

The survey also noted 84% of respondents somewhat or strongly agree Montana’s investments in colleges and universities benefit the state.

Thiel said one of the big takeaways from the survey is that Montanans believe if they get a degree, it will pay off in significant ways, particularly if it’s a career-focused degree. But, he said they don’t feel like there’s enough support to make college affordable.

“We know there’s a lot of students who start on this pathway and never make it to the finish line,” Thiel said.

The report discussed drivers of the return on investment in higher education as well. It noted “completion matters,” or getting an actual degree, and “affordability is stratified.”

“Montana University System institutions graduate students at or just below national averages for on-time two- and four-year programs,” the report said. “Some credit, no degree and debt mean low return on investment for students and stranded investment for the state.”

Although “Montana has a low sticker price,” it also offers low need-based aid, “jeopardizing affordability for Montana’s lowest income families,” the report said.

The survey went to 10,000 households, and 1,100 responded, according to the Commissioner’s Office.

(Thiel said the survey parallels the New America survey, the broadest annual survey of perceptions of higher education, and the Commissioner’s Office is confident in its methodology and results: “That is a larger survey sample size than you’ll get in almost any political survey.”)

The results will help the Montana University System understand how residents think about higher education, and it will inform initiatives that drive value in higher education in Montana, Miller said.