Opinion: Education key to health of economy

Gazette Editorial

Education must be the No. 1 priority for Montana’s economic development.

That’s the reason a group of Montana business and professional leaders have united in the Alliance for
Montana’s Future. This nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative has taken on the mission of supporting higher
education in Montana – the University System with its six four-year institutions and five colleges of
technology as well as the three Montana community colleges, three private colleges and seven tribal

The alliance members are volunteering to increase public awareness of the economic importance of a
quality higher education system.

Business volunteers

Carol Donaldson, general counsel for First Interstate BancSystems in Billings, is serving as the initiative’s
executive director. Ian Davidson, chairman of Davidson Cos. in Great Falls, is chairing the campaign.
Other members of the 13-person steering committee include Gazette Publisher Mike Gulledge,
MEA-MFT Public Policy Director Erik Burke of Helena, state Economic Development Director Dave
Gibson of Helena, former state legislator Chase Hibbard of Helena and Bruce Parker, president, financial
services group, First Interstate Bank, Billings. Eleven other volunteers are serving as regional chairs,
including Joan Hendricks, of the Boys and Girls Club Foundation in Billings and Dan Killoy, publisher of
the Miles City Star.

The initiative grew out of the Economic Development Action Group that has brought together private- and
public-sector players to collaborate on a healthier state economy.

The connection between higher education and economic health is clear: Most jobs in growing fields
require some post-secondary training. Nationally and in Montana, workers with bachelor’s degrees
average double the annual income of workers who have only a high school education.

Businesses looking to expand or relocate have education needs. They want a skilled, educated
workforce, access to quality colleges and universities and quality K-12 schools in the community.

Looming state cutbacks

Does Montana’s higher education need help now?

Definitely. In July, the Board of Regents meeting most
likely will be dominated by a proposal to increase tuition,
spend reserves, slash equipment purchases and reduce
student services. All these measures may be required to
comply with the governor’s order for budget reduction.
State revenue projections have dropped and the governor
is required, by law, to balance the budget. Gov. Judy
Martz may announce her decisions this week. It appears
likely that the final cuts will follow Budget Director Chuck
Swysgood’s recommendations which would reduce state
funds to the University System by $5.15 million in the
year beginning on July 1.

The state’s revenue outlook beyond fiscal 2003 isn’t
bright. The nationwide recession that began early last
year, lower investment income, and corporate tax cuts
tied to the federal economic stimulus law precipitated Montana’s immediate budget crisis. However, the
Legislative Fiscal Division has warned of an even larger "structural imbalance" in the state budget: There’s
more ongoing expense than ongoing revenue.

In this funding crunch, in this state that has historically funded higher education at a lower level than
most of its neighbors, we cannot count on government alone to make needed improvements. Higher
education must have the active support of the Montana residents and businesses that recognize its
value. New, creative partnerships must be formed between education, business, professionals and other
community members.

The timing for launching the Alliance for Montana’s Future is fortuitous. The need for higher education has
never been greater. We commend the volunteers in the Alliance for Montana’s Future. We pledge to
support their efforts to make "education higher and hire."

Higher ed statistics

Montana’s per capita income dropped from 90
percent of the national average in 1980 to 76
percent in 2000.
Between 1991 and 2001, Montana university tuition
increased 117 percent .
State funding of higher education increased by only
7 percent during the same decade.
Montana university faculty make 19 percent less
than the national average salary for university
Faculty at Montana’s two-year colleges earn 42
percent less than their peers around the nation.
Source: Alliance for Montana’s Future on the Net

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