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UM tuition projected to rise 1.7 percent next year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Undergraduate resident tuition for the 2014-15 academic year at the four campuses of the University of Missouri system would rise 1.7 percent, the national inflation rate, under projections presented to the system’s Board of Curators on Thursday.

Meeting at the university’s St. Louis campus, curators were reminded that under state law, tuition at the university is limited to the Consumer Price Index as released in December. The 1.7 percent figure was cited as an estimate, to be revised when the curators take a final vote on the tuition at their meeting in January.

On Wednesday, the core CPI was reported to have increased 1.7 percent from October 2012, matching the gain in the previous year-long period.

If the projected tuition increase is approved in January, yearly tuition at the four campuses in the University of Missouri system would average $9,464. The Rolla campus, Missouri Science & Technology, would have the highest annual tuition at $9,510, followed by $9,474 in St. Louis, $9,456 in Kansas City and $9,415 in Columbia.

University officials say comparable tuition at public doctoral institutions nationwide averages $9,804, while tuition at private doctoral institutions averages $36,171.

Officials attributed the effort to hold tuition increases down to more than the restrictions built into law. They cited growing student debt, shrinking scholarship aid and reductions in state and federal support as reasons to hold the line on student fees.

While showing how the university’s tuition increases in recent years have been far below those of comparable institutions, a statement accompanying the projected rise cautioned that prudent financial management can go only so far.

The “lack of real revenue growth has resulted in larger class sizes, increasing student faculty ratios, and decline of available quality faculty time for research,” the statement said. “The problem varies greatly by program of study and discipline depending on student demand of the program. Both class size and student-to-ranked-faculty ratios are increasing and in some program areas are reaching critical levels.”

In his presentation to the curators, Thomas Richards, interim vice president for finance, showed how the UM system’s increases, both annually and over five years, was far below those at comparable institutions in adjacent states.

But given the financial pressures that result, he added, “Is that a good or a bad thing? It’s both.”

Because of limited funds and rising enrollment, Thomas said class sizes are going up, which could threaten the university’s accreditation or force caps on the number of students who could enroll.

Thomas also cited an S&P report on the university’s management that said: “We consider UM’s budgeting to be both conservative and proactive.”

He said that faculty salaries rank at or near the bottom of salaries at comparable schools in key areas, and the cost of employee benefits is increasing at a pace that may not be sustainable.

In addition to limited tuition increases and shrinking government support, Thomas presented figures that showed the university system has a facilities backlog of $1.3 billion. “This doesn’t go away,” he said. “It just keeps getting bigger.”

On the topic of state appropriations, the university’s statement said that system President Tim Wolfe has pledged that any new state money will be allocated to the campuses to pay for items in their strategic plans.

“We remain hopeful the governor will recommend and legislature will appropriate increased funding for the university in FY2015,” the statement said. “We also do not anticipate any additional withholdings in FY2014 over the governor’s 3 percent reserve. For perspective, a 1 percent increase in state appropriations is approximately $4 million.”

At their meeting Friday, curators are expected to approve a proposed merger between the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio. The radio station’s license is held by the university, requiring a vote by the curators to finalize the deal.

UMSL eyes better optometry facility

The curators also heard plans for a new building for the UMSL School of Optometry. It would be built on its south campus in three phases.

Chancellor Tom George said that the building that currently houses the school was inherited and designed to be a residence hall. The university has been using it in a creative way, he said, but the program really needs a building designed for optometry.

The long-range vision would be for a $90 million building that would serve as a nursing and optometry complex, George said. Phase one would provide 35,000 square feet for eye care, primary health care and administrative and support space.

The initial phase would cost $17 million, paid for by $5 million of reserves from the optometry school and $12 million in bonds. The bonds would be paid off by a student fee approved last month and reallocation of funds within the optometry school.

Dean Larry Davis noted that the financing could have been arranged in other ways, but he wanted students to be involved in deciding the fee.

Laurie Thompson, a second-year optometry student, told the curators that the improved facilities were important enough for students to approve a fee on the cost of their degree. She called the new building “an investment in our future.”

If it wins final approval from the curators in January, construction on the first phase of the building could begin next fall, with completion by late summer of 2016.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.