ASUM president: Don’t balance state budget by increasing burden on Montana families

It’s hard to imagine, but in 1980 in-state tuition at Montana colleges was $625 per year. Today, I shoulder $6,215. That’s a ten-fold increase – just for tuition.

I wish I could do it like people did in the ’80s – study hard and get a part-time job to cover the “extras.” I wish that were still possible.

Tuition costs are rising faster than incomes. Here are the facts: In 1990, the median Montana household income was $38,395 and in-state tuition was about 3.7 percent of a family’s income. By 2000, in-state tuition rose to 7.2 percent of a family’s income. By 2015, Montana families paid 12.9 percent.

As a high school student, I worked nearly a full-time job on top of my extra-curricular activities to help save for college. However, most of what I made went to help support my single mother and two younger sisters. During college, I worked anywhere from 20-40 hours a week, and 60 hours a week during the summer at multiple jobs. I also received a scholarship and the full Pell Grant, but I still had to take out loans. Paying for college has been difficult, and my story is not unique.

I have the great privilege of serving as the president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM), which acts as the representative body and as an advocate for the general welfare of students. During the legislative session, students representing UM and the Montana Association of Students (MAS) were in the Capitol every day advocating for a sound higher education budget and testifying at revenue hearings over and over again.

The $12.4 million cut from higher education budget will cause in-state tuition increases for current and future students. And since the session ended, there have been even more. With the SB 261-triggered cuts, we took another $15 million hit. Now, under the 10-percent reduction proposals, the University System could be cut up to $45 million more in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Altogether we’re looking at a grand total of $71.5 million.

Parents and grandparents painstakingly put money away or take out large loans so their kids might have a good education and a shot at a better life. Most college students rely on the support of scholarships, student loans, Pell Grants (if you are lucky), and multiple jobs. Student debt is a huge barrier for graduates who spend decades paying off loans before they’re able to substantially save their earnings to buy a home or start a business.

Everyone has heard the saying, “Montana’s largest export is our young people.” Young people would be able to stay and live here when there are tangible signs of our state investing in us. This means resources – and that means revenue. There were revenue options on the table throughout the session: tobacco tax, alcohol taxes, closing corporate loopholes, and a millionaire’s tax. Students and our families are paying far more than our fair share to get an in-state college degree. It’s time we ask all Montanans to pay their fair share too.

We urge the governor and legislators to come together and find a balanced approach that considers new revenue proposals for long-term solutions, rather than forcing already struggling families to bear the brunt of this budget crisis.

Braden Fitzgerald is president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana.