By Sam Forstag

As the president of the ASUM, it is my privilege and responsibility to represent over 11,000 students of the University of Montana. Unfortunately, the fight for affordable, accessible higher education for Montana’s families is becoming more challenging.

The Legislature has proposed an $11.8 million cut to the Montana University System that our students and our campuses simply cannot afford. Whether you attend UM or Dawson Community College, MSU or Montana Tech, these cuts make higher education less accessible and add to the significant financial burden students and families already face.

An $11.8 million shortfall would likely mean slashing courses and cutting staff and instructors. This will mean added time to graduation and added expense for students before they can earn a degree. It would also result in double-digit tuition increases for every college and university student across Montana.

At a time when students are working multiple jobs and graduating with an average of $27,504 in student loan debt, Montana families and students simply can’t afford a cut this drastic.  

According to the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, every dollar spent on higher education leads to $3 generated in state tax revenue. Furthermore, over 80 percent of students in our university system will be working and living in Montana a year after graduation. Every single state dollar that goes to higher education is a smart investment in Montana’s economic future.

As we look for sensible solutions to balancing the state’s budget, such a blow to Montana’s system of higher education threatens to have an impact that stretches far into the future.

There is another option. Rather than eviscerating the budget for higher education and shifting the cost onto students, our legislators should ensure that we have adequate revenue sources. The Governor has proposed a means to do so by adding a top tax rate for incomes over $500,000 (the top 1 percent of households), which would raise $37 million over the biennium. With this much-needed revenue, we can protect state investments that are critical for our future.

Currently, someone making $18,000 a year pays the same top tax rate as someone making $1 million a year. Continuing to provide big tax breaks for corporations and the super wealthy costs our state millions in lost revenue, and comes at the expense our students, our infrastructure, and our state’s long-term prosperity.

Keeping tuition affordable is critical to ensuring that Montana students can afford to finish school and achieve their potential. We want to be able to stay in Montana after graduation. We want to be able to contribute to our local economies, to buy a house, to start small businesses, and to contribute to our state’s success.

In the next 10 years, Montana will face a shortage of more than 100,000 workers. The Montana University System supplies our state with trained, quality workers. Montana needs nurses and scientists, educators and accountants, writers and computer programmers. Limiting access to higher education is a step backward that harms Montana’s workforce and economy, gives Montana students less opportunity for in-state employment, and narrows the hiring pipeline for Montana businesses.

There are better options. It is not fair to students, families, or our state’s economy to make deep, debilitating cuts to higher education while the super wealthy and large out-of-state corporations get tax breaks. We hope that the Legislature will seriously consider solutions that bring more revenue into Montana as they contemplate cuts. That is the responsible way to balance our budget.

Sam Forstag is president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM).