By Tim Leeds
If state funding of higher education continues to drop, the only way to continue providing a quality education will be to charge the students more, Richard Crofts said Monday.
"If we don't find ways to generate more state support, it will involve more tuition increases," said Crofts, Montana commissioner of higher education.
Crofts was addressing community leaders and officials from Montana State University-Northern at a luncheon in Havre Monday.
The university system lost about $12.5 million as a result of cuts by the Legislature and Gov. Judy Martz over the summer to eliminate a $57 million state budget deficit. The university system saw no option but to ask the Board of Regents for a tuition surcharge to make up the loss, which the Regents approved, Crofts said.
Tuition was low enough at one time it almost could be called an incidental fee, Crofts said. No one could call it that now, he said.
Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville said the budget cut was difficult, especially for the smaller campuses in the university system. Northern has had enrollment increases, which increases funding, only to have its state general funding reduced.
"It's kind of like getting the carpet pulled out from under you," he said. "Any more cuts like that and something has to go."
Crofts said the university system will only have one request for new funding for the 2003 Legislature about $4.5 million for financial aid to help students deal with the tuition increases.
The impact of tuition increases for students of lower-income families is a major concern, he said. A total of 39 percent of the students at Montana State University-Billings' are from families with incomes below the state average, which is about the 46th or 48th lowest in the nation, Crofts said.
That isn't the case at the flagship universities, the University of Montana and Montana State University-Bozeman, he added. Those universities could implement significant tuition increases without impacting many of their students, Crofts said.
He has been told the best-case scenario for the university system is to receive the same level of funding for the next biennium as it did for the 2002-03 biennium, Crofts said.
He said he told state Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, that if the university received the same funding, "We might have a party. Maybe not, but we'd feel like we escaped pretty well."
The university system is extremely successful in using what funding it receives, he said.
"We provide a high-quality education to Montanans in a cost-effective manner. And we leverage state dollars into a huge economic enterprise," Crofts said.
University graduates score extremely well on professional certification tests, perform well in graduate school, and are heavily recruited by out-of-state businesses, especially education majors, he said.
"No matter how you dip down into our graduates and measure it," he said, "our graduates are doing very, very well."
The system takes a $140 million investment from the state for its budget and turns it into an $800 million budget, Crofts said, a 5-to-1 return. Out-of-state students pay about $113 million, and research at the universities brings about $125 million.
Using a conservative multiplier to figure the impact of money the system brings in, Crofts said, the effect is about $750 million a year on the Montana economy.
A study by the Legislative Fiscal Division in 2000 showed that Montana educates students for about 25 percent less than Montana's peer states, states with similar systems in the same region.
Crofts said the trend to reduce state funding for the universities is part of a societal trend. After World War II and the GI Bill, the United States created a huge educational enterprise to provide a high-quality, low-cost secondary education system.
There seems to be a shift from people thinking that society and the state benefit from students attending college to thinking that only the individual benefits, he said. People think the individuals, therefore, should pay for it, he added.
"It's a historic moment, really," he said.
The Montana University System will continue to provide a quality education to its students regardless of what state funding the 2003 Legislature provides, Crofts said.
"We don't know what the outcome will be. It doesn't look very promising. Whatever it is, we will continue to do what we do best," he said.