There’s a unique tradition in Montana. Once every decade since 1948, voters have taken to the polls to give the state’s colleges a report card and decide whether or not they want to tax themselves to support the institutions. The tax, known as the six-mill levy, is a small charge on property that helps fund higher education. It provides about $20 million in funding for the state’s public colleges each year.
The tax referendum has passed every time it’s been voted on since 1948, but this year the result wasn’t as certain, and education advocates feared the worst. But the measure ended up passing with 62 percent of the vote, the first time there has been an increase in support for it in four decades.
Montana’s referendum was seen as a bellwether of whether distrust of higher education would translate directly into decreased funding—and its passage was taken as a positive sign for colleges. But the question of why it passed is an interesting one. And one that institutions may do well to pay attention to as state funding for higher education continues to dry up.
Montana is already below the per capita national average on higher-education spending, Thomas Harnisch, a policy director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told me. And if the referendum hadn’t passed, the defeat would have been a blunt blow to higher education in the state. “This ballot measure was one way to guard against potential cuts in program quality or tuition increases,” Harnisch says.