My attention was drawn to financing higher education by the Guest Column in the Sunday, June 2, 2013 Missoulian. I would like to add that Montana does a terrible job in financing all education. I have lived in the Bitterroot Valley for almost fifty years and the legislature has never in that time fully financed K-12 education.
I was involved in the attempt to establish a community college in the Bitterroot Valley. In the course of our struggles I learned quite a bit about the funding for two-year higher education units in Montana. It was either three or four years ago that experts on two-year higher education were brought in to study Montana’s two-year system. They found it abominable. Montana obtained a grant of more than a million dollars to seek a solution to the two-year problem.
The Sunday column mentioned that the University was involved in “rebranding” of which I was not aware. I knew that the million-dollar grant was involved in “rebranding.” There are four or five different types of two-year higher education institutions in Montana and they are all funded in a different manner. I thought the million dollars would bring some uniformity to two-year higher education but I was sadly mistaken. What they did with the money was to “rebrand” the existing institutions with different names. Now us ranchers all know that no matter how many brands you put on the hide of a cow, it is still a cow. The million dollars did nothing constructive for Montana’s two-year higher education system.
The community college for the Bitterroot Valley was thwarted politically by the Board of Regents, Commissioner of Higher Education’s Office and the University of Montana. The U of M and the Commissioner’s Office then suggested that the community college group get together and start a two-year college in the Bitterroot as part of the U of M. This was accomplished.
This is supposition on my part. I believe the U of M thought the college would attract a very limited number of students and the U of M could say they were offering college courses in the Bitterroot. I’m happy to say it didn’t turn out that way. When the Bitterroot College opened its doors there were 125 eager students ready to enroll. Each semester the enrollment grew and will continue to grow if the Bitterroot College is properly funded. The Bitterroot College is the lowest rung on the U of M ladder. With the U of M in financial difficulty it is not hard to see that funding for the Bitterroot College is going to suffer.
We have three community colleges in Montana and they all are doing well. The reason the Board of Regents doesn’t like community colleges is because the Board doesn’t get to handle all of the community colleges’ money. A number of years ago, the Board of Regents and the Montana Legislature ended up in a lawsuit over who had control of the higher education money. The Board won in the Supreme Court and the two institutions have been at odds ever since.
The rapid increase in educational technology in the last fifteen years has made education our most important product if we are going to lead the world toward a saner lifestyle. Where once we led the world in education we now find ourselves in the second row in educating our people. When Montana wants to balance the budget the first place they look to cut is education. Cutting education is not the way you win the battle to lead the world. Educating our citizens to their highest level will provide solutions to a lot of our problems and we do have problems.
Every legislative session in Montana our elected representatives try to enact a lot of hogwash legislation. I have not seen any positive movement on the part of our representatives to adequately fund education. They always blow a lot of smoke about education but they never have reached into the State’s deep pocket to fully fund the educational effort.
Like everything else we always want to get the most for our dollar. If you want to know where the public is getting the most for their educational dollar, come visit the Bitterroot College and you will see the educational dollar stretched beyond belief. There are a lot of hungry students using every penny of every dollar to elevate themselves educationally to find new employment in our changing world.