Yo, Bozeman, you elected this guy?

Bozmaniac Tom Burnett, Republican in the Montana House from District 67, says college kids aren’t paying enough tuition.

That’s right, if they just went a little deeper in debt, maybe they’d take their studies more seriously.

Burnett’s guest column appeared in the Missoulian and Bozeman Chronicle, and he suggests that taxpayers should quit subsidizing these higher-ed bums. All the kids want to do is play, play, play:

When Montana students were told by our higher-education administrators this spring that tuition increases might be necessary after nearly a decade of low and frozen tuition, they objected that it would be a hardship. Yet, at Montana State University, 62 percent of survey respondents approved of recreation-fee increases to “improve playing fields, climbing walls and provide more support to student clubs.” The Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote, “MSU’s recreation fee proposal includes a study that found recreation facilities are more influential than academic programs in attracting students to enroll and keeping them in college.”

Those students should be in the library archives 24/7, damnit.

For starters, Montana University System tuition has increased 16.6 percent in the past decade. There was a brief tuition freeze starting in 2007 or that figure would be higher. Twenty years ago, in 1997, tuition was $2,453. Today it’s $6,409, a 166 percent increase. Here’s a chart covering the years 1991 to 2010. Notice how tuition has gone up faster than Montana wages.

Burnett says Montana tuition is the third lowest in the nation. The statistics I found have it as the six lowest, but that’s a minor quibble. What he posits is this:

When the price of college to the student is kept low, more students who lack commitment and readiness for college-level work enroll. These then drop out at a high rate.

The taxpayer expects colleges to turn out graduates with wisdom and the skills that the labor market demands. The higher the subsidy from taxpayers, the lower the cost to the student and the less the price signal conveys to the student. A student can start college and enjoy campus life for several years, then drop out without much personal financial consequence. Taxpayers’ investments fail in these cases.

I’m not sure what a “price signal” is but obviously the U-system just isn’t cranking out enough autobots for the labor market. Forget the other aspects of a college education: interacting with people from other places with different backgrounds, being exposed to new ideas that weren’t taught at one’s rural high school. Maybe that’s Burnett’s real problem with Montana’s colleges and universities, they teach kids to think for themselves and challenge the preconceived notions taught in their ninth-grade civics class.

And although a 100 percent graduation rate is a worthy, although unrealistic goal, isn’t a couple of years of higher education preferable to no college at all? Here’s Burnett’s conclusion:

Subsidizing tuition burdens taxpayers. But it also has downsides for students. It encourages students who have no business attending college to heed the siren call; they delay their entry into the workforce and often incur debt. (The perks of college — an exciting peer culture, time to ski, climb and kayak, sporting events — are arguably worth it to them.) Meanwhile, those students who are prepared for college get a degraded product because standards are lowered to accommodate the ill-prepared, and fewer dollars are available to pay top-flight faculty.

In summary, low tuition spurs a high dropout rate. Taxpayers’ sacrifices enable large enrollments but yield reduced economic returns. This problem is especially acute in Montana.

In other words, if you can’t afford college, you have no business being there. That’s some amazing rhetoric Burnett espouses, especially considering he hails from the city with a university that has the highest enrollment in Montana — an institution that makes Bozeman more than just a cowtown in the Rockies.

So let’s quit wasting taxpayer money on Montana kids and make our colleges more expensive, putting them out of reach for your average Montanan and dumbing down the populace. Brilliant.


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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.


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    • Thanks, G.B., for the additional info. Perhaps I should have said Gallatin County, although Burnett’s address is listed as Bozeman. He must live to the far west of Bozeman proper. It also appears that Belgrade is voting against its own self-interest, although that’s not unusual in Montana.

    • Also, G.B., we have some knotheads who claim to be Missoula legislators but live outside the city limits, as well. Brad Tschida comes to mind. Reminds me of the Belgrade/Four Corners dynamic. We feel your pain.

  • Pete, there are a couple of signals in Burnett’s words: “Taxpayers’ investments fail”; “Subsidizing tuition burdens taxpayers”; “Taxpayers’ sacrifices… yield reduced economic returns”; etc. It’s pretty clear that Burnett values private colleges over publicly funded ones. And that is pretty standard fare among republicans and wealthy families.

    The signal here is that public education is only an investment in workers’ abilities to fit into the current or near term job market. And obviously, the public college market is over-saturated with people who are doing otherwise — which due to the “Great Recession” starting in 2008 and all of its economic fallout and job market and industry restructuring (“creative disintegration”), college was a refuge from a declining job marketplace and bad wages in hopes that it would turn around in the next decade (which it hasn’t).

    So what better way to reduce public university enrollment figures than by pricing students out of the system, and lambasting the system to justify it? And lets just shuffle workers to low wage, high school dropout hiring employers, or to semi-skilled trade workers in the health care or service industries (adequately served by 2 year trade schools)? One just needs to look at the declining student population at UofM main campus and the booming population at the College of Technology to see this in action.

    There is a movement afoot to solidify the future job markets around jobs and industries that do nothing but shift wealth upwards. And why have students educated in the liberal arts at all when all they do is critique the status quo and suggest alternative systems? Free thinking, the arts and entrepreneurship are not the realm of college university educations anymore.

    We are losing our public education system to a systemic attack based on vouchers, distrust of science, debt enslavement, high costs due to administrative bloat and outrageous salary creep, reduced public support, etc. It is all linked to nothing more than the desire to shift wealth upward by powerful interests leveraging state legislatures, leaving private schools as the havens of the wealthy. All the rest the diatribe about what students do and want to invest in (recreation, culture, sports, etc.) is just noise and a way create diversions.

  • Pete is hard on Burnett and the people who sent him to Helena, but I’m not sure he’s being hard enough.

    Burnett writes, “A scatter-plot graph of tuition versus graduation rates in the 50 states reveals a strong correlation — low tuition is associated with low graduation rates, high with high.” He does not provide his plot’s r-squared statistic.

    The Chronicle and the Missoulian should have published his scatterplot and his data. They can still do so online, and should do so. (And had Burnett refused to provide his plot and data, his oped ought not have been published.)

    Beyond that, many variables are associated with the graduation rate. I’m skeptical that the dominant variable at public colleges and universities is the cost of tuition.

    I urge the faculty at both MSU and UMT to review Burnett’s data and argument, and to publish their findings pronto. That means within a week.

    Beyond that, I’m willing to accept a low six-year graduation rate as a tradeoff for keeping tuition low at public universities. Even students who do not earn degrees derive some benefit from the classes they complete, and society is better for their accomplishment. It would be a tragedy for lower and income Montanans if Montana’s public universities were to follow the University of Michigan’s horrible example (https://www.politico.com/story/2017/11/09/university-of-michigan-admissions-low-income-244420) and become affordable only to the sons and daughters of the upper few percent.

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