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Mild Inflation Means Moderate UM Tuition Hike; Curator Steelman Objects

Millennium Student Center at UMSL
File: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 4:04 p.m. with more on the tuition debate:

Students at the University of Missouri will pay just 0.8 percent more in tuition and fees at the four-campus university system for the coming school year, but the school’s leaders say they need to get more money from the state so they can charge students less.

The tuition and fee increase was approved by a vote of 6-1 Thursday by the Board of Curators, meeting on the Columbia campus. The lone negative vote – unusual on the board – came from David Steelman of Rolla, a former member of the General Assembly who said the university has to make a stronger case to lawmakers that state support needs to be increased.

“As we increase tuition, as we increase fees, we are blurring the distinction between public and private universities,” he said. “We are making society more stratified.”

The vote was the first time since 2011 that curator approval of tuition and fee increases for the university system was not unanimous, a university spokesman said.

Steelman said that in discussions in recent years over the need for more appropriations for higher education in Missouri, public colleges and universities have not been able to make their case. “We have lost the debate,” he said, adding:

“We are the salesmen,” he said in comments before the vote. “Sometimes, when you don’t make the sale, you have to tighten up and bite the bullet.”

Steelman said he hopes the curators will “have a deeper dive” into the financial situation.

UM officials have stressed the efficiencies they have made in recent years, and they take pride that Missouri is among the leaders nationwide in keeping tuition increases low. But with money from students surpassing the amount coming from the state, they have also said that the point is coming where students could be priced out of the market.

Curator John Phillips of Kansas City said he voted in favor of the increases “grudgingly,” but he said that lawmakers have to “understand the box that higher education and the University of Missouri are being put in.”

He said he hopes Steelman is not correct that the university has lost the debate over who should be paying for higher education in Missouri, adding: “I worry that some people don’t have the priority of supporting accessible and affordable public higher education…. That’s not America. America is not about that, and Missouri should not be about that.”

Curator Ann Covington of Columbia said she hopes her finance committee can have more discussions about the issue in the coming year and come up with a consensus that works for the university and the state.

Before the vote, Brian Burnett, the UM vice president for finance and chief financial officer, told the curators that while Missouri law governs how much universities may raise tuition and fees without seeking a waiver form the state, the national Consumer Price Index differs quite a bit from the university budget.

For example, he said, lower gasoline prices late last year pushed the CPI down to a level lower than expected, but fuel costs don’t make up the share of the university budget that they are for most households. For the university, he explained, 77 percent of the budget goes for personnel costs.

“We are a very labor-intensive business.”

He said that the overall increase in tuition and fees systemwide, including some fees that are not limited by state law, will bring in $8.6 million. “The change is very modest,” Burnett said.

But those fee increases are a major concern to students, according to Tracy Mulderig of UMSL, the non-voting student representative on the board. During a discussion of supplemental fees, she said that while student leaders understand the need for them, they have to be explained better to the student body in general.

She noted that some students who actually drop out of school still have paid the fees, presenting a financial hardship.

“It can be a shock to the average student,” Mulderig said. She compared the ever-increasing fees and the complicated structure to the sometimes-baffling finances of health care.

University President Tim Wolfe also talked about the fees, saying they are needed to preserve the balance of quality and affordability. Often, he said the fees go to support specific programs or research, and his office tries to make sure that such efforts are in line with the strategic priorities of each campus.

“We’d like nothing better than to not do this,” Wolfe said, “but we are in a financial situation where we have been so good at being efficient over the years, we risk the quality of our education without these fees.”

While the curators were meeting in Columbia, the Missouri Senate confirmed two more members for the board: Philip Snowden of Kansas City and Maurice Graham of Clayton. A third nominee by Gov. Jay Nixon, Mary Nelson of St. Louis, has been rejected by a Senate committee.


Our original story:

The recent sharp drop in gasoline prices did more than please motorists. It also will help University of Missouri students save money all during the coming school year.

At their meeting this week in Columbia, curators of the four-campus system are expected to approve a tuition increase of just 0.8 percent for the 2015-16 school year. That follows a tuition freeze approved for the current school year.

State law limits the system’s tuition increase to the national Consumer Price Index, unless the school wants to seek a waiver from the Department of Higher Education. Preliminary figures discussed by the curators at their meeting in St. Louis in December had pegged the likely tuition hike next year at 1.8 percent, the projected CPI increase.

But when the actual numbers were released by the Labor Department last month, the index had risen just 0.8 percent in 2014. The department highlighted the sharp decline in gasoline prices as a major factor in the year-to-year drop.

So the university system, which prides itself on keeping in-state tuition increases among the lowest in the nation, will impose an increase of less than half of what it had discussed less than two months ago. Assuming the curators go along, tuition and fees for resident undergraduate UM students this coming year will be:

  • $9,500 in St. Louis,
  • $9,437 in Columbia,
  • $9,165 in Kansas City 
  • $9,544 in Rolla.

Living expenses and textbooks will add to those costs.
In St. Louis, the total increase will actually come to 6.2 percent because of a fee of $17.25 a credit hour that was approved by a student referendum to pay for the recreation center now being built on the UMSL campus. It is expected to open this fall.

Based on factors such as market forces and the strategic plans of the various campuses, resident graduate tuition rates are recommended to increase by 0.8 percent in Columbia and Kansas City, 3 percent in Rolla and 5 percent in St. Louis. Nonresident rates would increase 0.8 percent at Kansas City, 2.5 percent at St. Louis, 3 percent at Columbia and 6 percent at Rolla.

Though tuition increases are limited by state law, fees are not, and in many cases they can be sizable. Some, like the one approved for the UMSL rec center, win student approval. But others do not, and some students blame them for costs that can price students out of their education.

One proposal that generated some protest on the UMSL campus involved increased fees for undergraduate nursing students. Officials recommended raises of about 10 percent each year for the next two years, by $18.30 a credit hour next year and $20 a credit hour the year after that.

The university said the increase would have an average cost per student of $217 and raise $204,000 for the nursing school. The money would go for salaries and expanded educational experiences, including the use of simulation equipment in hands-on learning activities.

Nursing student Dan Szyman, who has been active in the protest against the increases, said it would eventually mean an extra $3,000 in costs for students – costs that would likely mean a higher repayment load for graduates.

“The burden is definitely going to be on the students,” he said in an interview. “I can definitely see people getting in more debt or spending some of their savings if they have any. Not too many students have that kind of savings.”

Like university officials, he blames a lack of support from Jefferson City.

“The legislature has really put us in a hard place,” Szyman said. “They’re trying to raise support on the backs of the students.

“Just because you think I’m going to make a lot of money when I got out of college doesn’t mean you should charge me more. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

State-assisted, not state-supported

That theme was sounded last week by university President Tim Wolfe in an interview on St. Louis On the Air. He discussed the university’s efforts to keep costs down and find financial efficiencies in a time when state support continues to lag.

“The financial condition of the University of Missouri System is decent,” Wolfe said,  “decent relative to our balancing the revenue and the expenses with the challenges that we have of keeping tuition low.”

While the four-campus system is generally considered to be state supported, in recent years educators have tended to term it state-assisted instead. In real and nominal terms, according to data released by the university, state support has fallen below the levels from 2001 – 32 percent below in the 2013-14 year, to $400 million from $586 million in 2001.

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 29, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe

About five years ago, the point came at which support from tuition and fees rose above that from the state of Missouri. In the current year, the university gets 51 percent of its support from students, 36 percent from state appropriations and 13 percent from other sources.

Over the past five years, both the annual and the cumulative tuition and fee increases at the system’s four campuses have fallen below those of four-year public institutions in neighboring states.

As enrollment increases and the university tries to maintain effective class sizes, Wolfe said the legislature needs to see that money spent on higher education is an investment in Missouri’s economic and educational future. He understands the competition for state dollars, and he has tried to make the university’s case in his tour of the state since taking office three years ago.

“We’re resource-constrained as a state,” Wolfe said last week. “We’re not seeing the growth in tax collections that other states have seen, and that growth is because the income tax, which is the biggest sliver of our pie, is not growing. That is a product of not seeing the increase in jobs post-recession that some other states are seeing.

“When you’ve got a pie that’s not expanding to cover just normal costs of Medicaid and K-12 and higher ed and prisons and all that stuff, then it puts pressure on the services that the state can deliver to institutions like the University of Missouri System.”

St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger

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.