In a series of important stories about the cost of attending the university system, officials from the university system have not always come across as terribly sympathetic to the needs of students, today suggesting that students are struggling with debt because some of them buy sports cars with their student loans.
In the latest piece in the Missoulian, Commissioner Clayton Christian argued that students are borrowing more money because the federal government raised the limit, not because they need to:
Commissioner Clayton Christian said one issue that isn’t discussed often is that high debt levels correlate more to the amount of money available for borrowing than they do to the cost of education. “The federal government raised the limit, and people are borrowing up to that limit,” Christian said. At UM, higher education officials have seen people borrow money and send it home to families in need — and borrow to buy a sports car.
For Christian to blame irresponsible borrowing when there are clearly students who lack the means to attend college without assistance is to ignore the challenges many families face when deciding how to pay for college. And an earlier story in the Missoulian shows that tuition and fees have grown faster than inflation since 2007, and that Montana does a worse job than most states when it comes to making sure the flagship universities are affordable to low-income students:
In Montana, students on the lower end of the income scale paid more to go to a flagship compared to low-income students at public research institutions in most other states, according to an analysis of 2014 data compiled by ProPublica.
That story also quotes Bill Johnstone, from the Montana Board of Regents, who relied on data, not anecdotes, to make the case for more need-based aid. According to Johnstone, “If students work, it may take them longer to get through college, and if they take longer, they incur more debt. Their academic performance isn’t as good, either.”
And while I’m sure there is one apocryphal story about a student on assistance buying a sports car with student loans, that’s clearly not the case for the vast majority of students who literally could not attend college without loans and other assistance. To even raise that as an argument against the need for more aid is beneath the intellectual level at which our universities should be operating.
Finally, in today’s story, Christian asserts that campuses need to be frugal, and “be committed to the expense side of the equation.” The expense side of the equation, of course, includes elements like adequate payment for professors, facilities, and educational opportunities for students.
There should be serious concern about the focus on reducing “the expense side” as diminished facilities and educational programs are almost certainly not going to reduce the enrollment and retention slide at the University of Montana. As a high school teacher, I’ve watched two cohorts of top-achieving students all but reject UM as an option because of concerns about the programs offered at the university when the school was the destination for Montana students just ten years ago.
And it’s hard to take Christian too seriously when he calls for more frugality in the system, given the salaries at the top of the system. A report in December notes that, when former President Engstrom stepped down in December, he was paid the rest of his $309,207 annual salary.
As for Commissioner Christian, who was hired without an interview or competitive search and who has overseen the enrollment collapse at UM? He makes even more, and is not even at his Helena office most of the week. And let’s not forget that the Commissioner, who has only a B.A., was initially paid $80,000 more annually than his eminently more qualifed female predecessor, who I assume worked a full week every week at the job.
While exorbitant salaries at the top of the system certainly won’t solve the budget issues in the university system, it’s hard to stomach rhetoric from the U system suggesting students and parents should be more responsible and the system should embrace frugality when it obviously doesn’t apply to the top. Before calling for austerity in the university system and reduced aid, maybe each top official could offer to reduce his/her salary in solidarity with the students and faculty. How about one expensive car’s worth to start?
After all, a person could probably buy himself a nice sports car or two with $300,000 for a part-time job.