LETTER: Balancing Costs in Montana Higher Ed

By Beacon Staff

Many Montanans don’t know that nonresident students subsidize the cost of our own children going to college. Legislators recognized this and wrote laws allowing the university system to waive nonresident tuition up to 2 percent of the previous year’s full-time enrollment numbers. University officials call this “tuition discounting” and know that more students from out of state mean lower costs for everyone.

The Board of Regents, however, created its own policy allowing tuition discounts over the 2 percent allowed by law in order to attract these students. There were 4,587 students receiving $40.5 million in tuition waivers in 2013.

Last fall’s audit questioned this approach by the Regents to do an end run around Montana Code Annotated. These findings did not sit well with audit members on both sides of the aisle.

They agreed with past Chair Mitch Tropila (D-Great Falls) who stated that university policy should follow the law. Officials assured us it would be rectified in the future by coming to the 2015 session to change the percentage or eliminate their policy that doesn’t follow the law.

Rep. JP Pomnichowski (D-Billings) wanted the universities to disclose how many student athletes were given waivers to attend Montana schools. The February audit revealed the number to be around 330 for each of the last three years. There are also about 70 percent of nonresident waivers renewed yearly.

Schools under the umbrella of University of Montana have an average of 15 to 19 students for each faculty member. My question to President Royce Engstrom was to explain to the elementary teachers and taxpayers how this was acceptable in the real world. His explanation pointed out that faculty members do much more than teach, such as research, outreach, mentorship or seminars.

Whatever the job description, many taxpayers believe that the number of students per faculty member is too low, especially since college students already know how to read and write and the taxpayers are paying the tab not covered by tuition.

My best professors at both Montana State University and UM were true teachers, ones who should have been paid more for their ability, didn’t care about the system or grant writing and actually cared about us and what we were learning. There are many of these still teaching on our campuses but the big money at the university level is in research dollars and not student tuition.

Audits sometimes bring out negative topics though we know there are a lot of good things happening on our campuses. Making it cost friendly is a big positive to Montana families.

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse
Legislative Audit Committee member