A Fair Comparison
We need to know how we measure up
regionally and nationally
By Emily Stonington
Emily Stonington is a state senator from Bozeman, Montana.
PICTURE MONTANA, a vast geographic area with less than a million people, and an economy that
is transitioning from natural resource based to service based. More than half of Montana’s legis-lators
never have served before, due to term limits.
The Montana University System is requesting an increased appropriation of $500 per student to
keep up with peer institutions. Higher education is competing with corrections, K–12 education,
Medicaid providers, foster families, public health departments and local governments for these dollars.
Although higher education has the option of raising tuition to fill the gap, much needed increases in
higher education funding at the state level are at risk.
Montana’s economy is struggling to keep up with national trends in new jobs, better wages and
stronger infrastructure. I believe that education and training beyond high school are prerequisites for
employment in the new economy. I believe our uni-versity system is among the bright lights to guide us
toward the technological world of the future.
But many Montanans view the world from a
more rural, less global perspective. Many Montanans
are suffering from lost jobs in resource extraction,
and are working two or more jobs to make ends
meet. For them, what counts is bringing new and bet-ter
jobs to their home town. Connecting that need to
higher education tax expenditures is a stretch.
So how do I read Measuring Up 2000 in this
context? First of all, I want to know how we did in
comparison. How do we rate with our surrounding
states? I don’t care so much about the coasts, but I
care a lot about North and South Dakota, Wyoming
and Idaho, because they are a fair comparison. Who
is paying for what part of higher education? How is
the state benefiting economically from its higher edu-cation
institutions? What does the cost of higher edu-cation
mean to Montana families? Are we keeping up
technologically and academically in our global environment? And finally, how can I use this information
to convince legislators that higher education spending is our best investment in a stronger economic
future in Montana?
As a legislator, I can’t point to direct returns to Montana’s economy from higher education indicated
in this report. I’m not sure what the criteria mean in measuring this factor. And with regard to maybe
the biggest piece—whether students are learning anything—there are no data and no conclusion.
How can I use this report? As a legislator who supports higher education, in a rural state where its
value is questioned by many, I’d like to use this report to encourage my colleagues to fund higher edu-cation
at a greater level of state dollars. But what is my case? How do I tie affordability to economic ben-efit
in the form of better jobs in our state, to the state’s need for increased levels of funding? Has the
report been widely circulated? Will it be part of our legislative discussions around higher education? I
need to know more.
There is potential here for benchmarks that will help Montana with difficult decisions around higher
education. We need to know how we measure up regionally and nationally. But now the real work
begins. Educators, policymakers, students and parents all must bring this report into discussions about
where we go from here. We must question the criteria and flesh out the data we have received here. We
need to ask ourselves what we want from higher education and what we’re willing to pay to receive it.
I look forward to using this report to stimulate such discussions. And when our legislature convenes
I will hope the report is in every legislator’s desk.