Montana has some of the least-educated legislators in the country, according to a report released Sunday by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But the magazine’s information differs from that provided by the Montana Legislature.
The Chronicle reports that 20 percent of Montana’s 150 legislators had no college education, which placed it 49th on the list, with Arkansas, where nearly 25 percent of legislators never went to college, finishing 50th.
The Chronicle report also said that 9 percent of Montana legislators had some college and nearly 65 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Those numbers differ from data on the Montana Legislature’s website based on questionnaires that legislators filled out before the 2011 session started in January.
According to that website, about 10 percent of legislators had a high school diploma but no college, about 13 percent had some college and nearly 76 percent said they had a college degree or higher. The “college degree” category apparently includes legislators with two-year associate degrees as well as bachelor’s degrees.
Those figures are similar to another source of information about legislators’ education.
The “copper book” published each session listing legislators’ biographies shows that about 11 percent of all legislators had a high school degree but no college, about 13 percent had some college, 8 percent had an associate’s degree and 70 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That information also was self-reported.
The education level is higher for the Montana Senate, said Kevin McRae, associate higher education commissioner for communications.
Eighty-six percent of state senators have a bachelor’s degree or higher and more than half have graduate degrees.
Sheila Stearns, Montana commissioner for higher education, said she was surprised by Montana’s low ranking in The Chronicle list, McRae said.
Over the years, many legislators who have been “effective, wise decision makers” never went to college, McRae said.
But an educated legislature is a positive attribute to the same or greater degree that an educated citizenry is, he said.
The Commissioner’s Office also has never felt any partisanship from legislators because of where they went to college, whether it was in state or out of state, McRae said.
“Lawmakers take great care in understanding (higher education’s) issues, and we feel they come by their views honestly, regardless of where they got their college degree or whether they have one at all,” McRae said.
At least one lawmaker agreed.
Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, who served on the Montana House education committee, said that as long as a legislator is knowledgeable about issues facing the state, it doesn’t matter if he or she has a college degree.
McClafferty has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Montana Western in Dillon.
Although Chronicle reporters didn’t talk individually with 7,400 legislators across the country for the report, the magazine’s research was “a comprehensive and intensive process,” Chronicle staff members said in a conference call Friday.
In addition to using Project Vote Smart, a non-partisan research organization based in Phillipsburg, the Chronicle used information from the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislative candidate websites and literature, social media and news clips, said Alex Richards, a Chronicle reporter who worked on the project.
One problem that cropped up during his research was the vagueness with which some legislators described their education. Some said they “went to college,” without saying if they received a degree. Others may have counted career training as higher education.
A spokesman for Project Vote Smart cautioned against using that organization’s information about legislators’ education levels as a sole resource because it is incomplete.
Vote Smart data about legislators’ education is not comprehensive because it is based on information available in the public domain, such as candidates’ websites and questionnaires sent out before an election, said Dan Kollar of Project Vote Smart.
Candidates may not give a complete listing of their education on the websites and don’t always return the Vote Smart form or include biographical information.
The Chronicle decided to do its report after hearing complaints from public college and university officials that their state legislators don’t understand higher education during a time when the relationship between state legislatures and state-funded higher education is going through a transition. Not only are lawmakers cutting back on state funds for higher education, some legislators are scrutinizing campuses more closely.
During the 2011 Montana Legislature, higher education received about 5 percent less for the next biennium than the previous two years and a bonding bill that would have helped build a new University of Montana College of Technology building and funded renovation of several other campus buildings across the state failed.
Legislators may or may not understand higher education, but it’s not because they aren’t educated themselves, The Chronicle report indicates.
About 75 percent of state legislators across the county have bachelor’s degrees or higher, while only 28 percent of Americans in general have a four-year degree or higher.
Montana lawmakers also are better educated than their constituents.
According to a U.S. Census report for 2005-2009, about 42 percent of Montana residents over the age of 25 have only a high school diploma or less; nearly 24 percent have had some college; less than 8 percent have associate degrees; less than 19 percent have bachelor’s degrees and about 8 percent have graduate degrees.
The Chronicle reported that California had the highest percentage (90 percent) of legislators with at least four-year degrees, followed by Virginia (89 percent), Nebraska (88 percent), New York (87 percent) and Florida (86 percent).
The Chronicle is a Washington, D.C.-based weekly that bills itself as the primary news source for college and university faculty and administrators. It also publishes an online version each weekday.