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Education Featured Montana Politics

The University System Blames Exorbitant Spending, Not Exorbitant Salaries for College Costs

Photo from University of Montana

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.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • This encourages further thought: Where does UM spend its money? And then further: Has the merging of academia and sports played into increased costs for education? I seem to recall being sold the Grizzly stadium with the promise that the cost would not come out of tuition. But that’s not how it worked out.

  • I don’t even understand what he means.
    Montana State’s own estimates place the total cost of a year of college for tuition/room/board/books at $17,750 a year.
    Assuming you could do it in 4 years, this is $71,000. You are capped at $55,000 in loans for all undergraduate study. And this doesn’t take into account most students these days take 5-6 years to finish.
    In addition to the administration costs, how about all the debt that’s been taken on? Here’s a description of fees from the Student Accounts office at MSU:
    PE Building – Primarily Debt
    Student Building – Primarily Debt
    PE Complex – Primarily Debt
    Weight Room – Debt for Construction of Weight Room
    Student Facilities Enhancement – Repay Series J Debt
    The students have been asked to take on many projects through debt in the past decade including the complete renovation of the Student Union Building, renovation of offices, reconstruction of the Procrastinator Theater, completely new construction of the Black Box Theater, complete overhaul and new construction of all weight/gym facilities at MSU. And all of this was done with debt.
    Do you really need 10 racquetball courts and a climbing wall to go to college? We even have separate training facilities for the students, the professors/staff and the athletic teams. The Bobcats or the professors really can’t lift the same weights as the students?
    When the solution to everything is debt, you can’t be surprised at the huge costs. It’s a bad habit administrators have gotten into just assuming we can finance everything through 20-30 year loans. The accumulation of project after project really makes you wonder how much of what students pay for anymore is actually related to their education.

  • Please keep the spotlight on this snake. He’s a total fraud who has been collecting a $300k paycheck for minimal work.

  • I firmly believe that the entire Board of Regents needs to be removed, they have failed the students and the people of this state. As a middle income earner with a wife that has serious medical issues it has been very hard to find money to help my three kids through college. Even with Pell Grants and them working full time during the summers and part time during the school year they still need to borrow about $5K a year each to cover expenses. None of my kids are buying sports cars or sending money home as this asshat implies, they are in fact living very modest lives. With tuition,books and fees alone running almost $9K a year, that leaves about $8K for them to live on. With rent, utilities, food, transportation and miscellaneous costs, there is very little left for entertainment. It is apparent that college is now a major industry and the well being of the students is a very low priority within its confines.

  • I don’t know if everyone remembers this guy was on the Board of Regents and managed to get himself appointed to this position. Now he has appointed himself head of the committee to select the new president of the University of Montana. First he helps destroy the fine university now he blames students. Bullocks appointed these regents so I feel he should step up and put pressure on the board to get rid of this guy. Contact some of the Board members let them know this has went on way to long.

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