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With budget cuts looming, state universities foresee dramatic cuts in programs and students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2008 - Harris-Stowe warns that it would have to shut down. Missouri State University in Springfield says it would lose the equivalent of funding for an entire college at the university, and Truman State says it would have to eliminate 208 faculty and staff jobs. And the largest public university in the state, the University of Missouri system, which includes UMSL, says it would have to get by with 1,400 employees fewer or raise tuition by as much as 27 percent. 

These are among the worst predictions that Missouri's public colleges and universities are making if they were forced to cut as much as 25 percent of their budget.

In response to Missouri's growing fiscal problems, the key budget people in the Missouri House and Senate -- Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, and Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood -- asked the schools to describe the impact of cuts of 15 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent in their operating budgets. The responses were compiled by the Department of Higher Education, which will send the information to the General Assembly on Monday.

Nodler has said the Republican leadership would wait to see what incoming Gov. Jay Nixon proposes before putting its own proposals on the table. Nodler had been sympathetic to some of Nixon's ideas, such as boosting college scholarship aid, but that was before Missouri revenue projections began to drop sharply. At the moment, the state has no cushion. Whatever surplus it might have counted on is being used to cover current expenses; plus, it's possible that schools may not get all the money promised for the current fiscal year.

Here's a brief look at what some of the state colleges and universities are saying. 


University of Missouri system


The University of Missouri system says it would lose as much as $110 million in state funding if it is forced to make across-the-board cuts of 25 percent. According to the system's president, Gary D. Forsee, the UMSL campus would lose as much as $14.2 million in funding.

The cuts could mean shifting faculty members from research to teaching and the use of more adjunct and part-time instructors, he said. The worst impact of this shift, Forsee says, would be the consolidation and elimination of some academic programs, decreased enrollment and "a risk of damage" to the quality of education.

If the cuts resulted in significant tuition increases, he said, the upshot would be decreased access to affordable education for some students and probably a decline in enrollment. Other potential consequences include a reduction in new research and the elimination of salary increases. Forsee already has imposed a hiring freeze for all campuses because of economic conditions. He says the University of Missouri system could carry out the budget reductions if required to do so, but he said the results would mean "a significant negative effect felt by citizens across the state."

Harris-stowe State University

By far the most dire response came from President Henry Givens of Harris-Stowe. He ruled out significant tuition increases to cover state cuts because the school serves a large percentage of poor and first-generation college students.

"Cuts of the magnitudes indicated by this request could shut this institution's doors during a period of consistently increasing enrollment," Givens said.

Missouri State University

Many schools noted that they never recovered from recession-related budget cuts imposed during the 2002 fiscal year. Missouri State said those cuts meant the loss of $12.6 million in state funding and caused it to eliminate jobs, defer some maintenance, and merge some programs.

But this time, the colleges and universities say budget cuts won't be easy because of their unprecedented scope. A 25 percent reduction would be like wiping out any one of the colleges at Missouri State or eliminating all scholarships and financial aid.

Southeast Missouri State University

Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau says a 15 percent drop in state aid would translate into a loss of $6.6 million; a 25 percent cut would cost the school $11 million. The budget reductions could result in a cap on enrollment. School officials add that the growth in enrollment, to 8,000 students, means the school is succeeding in improving access to college and bringing high-demand programs to the region. The impact of major cuts would reverberate throughout southeast Missouri. For every 50 students denied access, university officials say they could eliminate a few faculty and staff positions, but for every 100 students eliminated, the region's economy would lose $1 million.

Truman State University

Truman State officials in Kirksville said a 25 percent cut in state funding would be dramatic. "A reduction of state funding of this magnitude would definitely create a financial emergency and would set in motion an immediate downsizing of faculty and staff," school officials said in their response.

What a Difference a Year Makes

The legislators' inquiry and the reactions to it show just how quickly Missouri's fiscal picture has changed. Last spring, at the close of the legislative session, lawmakers agreed that higher education would get more money. In fact, the state Department of Higher Education was upbeat over projections that its budget could exceed the billion-dollar mark for the first time.

Recently, though, the Office of Administration said that revenue wasn't keeping pace with projections and was in fact lower now than a year ago. That could mean that Missouri's colleges won't even get all the money they expected in the current fiscal year, let alone get more money in the next.

During the campaign, both Gov.-elect Jay Nixon and GOP gubernatorial challenger Kenny Hulshof joined lawmakers in Jefferson City in saying a tax hike would never be part of the solution.

Still, the General Assembly may find ways to ease the cuts. Groups like the Missouri Budget Project and state Sen. Joan Bray of University City have suggested a little creativity. One idea recently floated is for lawmakers to grab revenue from Internet purchases. That may become part of the debate when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

In any case, Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of higher education, warns that Missouri's colleges and university face some hard times ahead. He notes that Missouri's higher education system already is "severely underfunded" and has been since at least the 2001-2002 fiscal year.

"Additional cuts could mean lots of people will be laid off, tuition could go up, enrollments could be capped, and Missouri families and communities throughout the state will feel the impact," he said in a statement.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.