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Flat tuition proposed for UM students

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

Taking into account low inflation, state law and a request from Gov. Jay Nixon, the University of Missouri is proposing no tuition increase for resident undergraduate students at its four campuses in the next school year.

The proposal was introduced at the Board of Curators meeting held Thursday on the university’s St. Louis campus. Curators will take a final vote in the spring on tuition for the 2016-17 school year.

Though tuition would remain flat for undergraduates who live in Missouri, some fees are set to rise by variable amounts at the system’s campuses in St. Louis, Columbia, Kansas City and Rolla.

In September, Nixon announced that leaders of the state’s public colleges and universities had agreed to freeze tuition next year in exchange for his asking for a 6 percent increase, or nearly $56 million, in funding for higher education. The money would be awarded based on institutions’ performance in a variety of areas, including graduation rates, student retention and academic achievement.

A 1 percent increase in state appropriations means $4.2 million for the University of Missouri system.

But Steve Knorr, the university system’s vice president for university relations, acknowledged to the curators Thursday that the governor’s request is far from a sure thing.

“It’s going to be a big challenge, in the current legislative environment, to get that increase,” he said.

The curators also heard a report that the system had saved $77 million over the past two years through efficiencies and effectiveness moves in a variety of areas. Brian Burnett, vice president for finance, said such changes are badly needed, given the stagnant nature of state support.

“We’re still a bargain and a good value,” he told the curators. “What we’re trying to do is meet challenges.

Burnett said the recent changes in administration at the top of the university system, with the resignation last month of President Tim Wolfe and Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, has set the tuition review back slightly. But he still expects that a final recommendation can be brought to the curators for approval in the spring.

More from tuition, less from the state

According to information presented to the curators, since 2001 state support for the university system has declined by 26 percent, or $148 million, in purchasing power. At the same time, enrollment has grown from 56,000 to more than 77,000, leading to a drop of 47 percent in real terms of state appropriations per student. Class sizes have also increased.

To make up for the decrease, the system has had to increase revenue from tuition. While the UM system historically has been considered to be state-supported, in 2010 money from tuition and fees surpassed the amount appropriated by the state, and that trend has continued. For the current year, tuition and fees represented 52 percent of the system’s budget, while 35 percent came from the state. Other revenue, which made up the other 13 percent, has remained relatively flat.

Nixon has frequently mentioned that Missouri ranks near the top nationwide in holding down the cost of tuition to public colleges and universities.

State law limits the amount that public colleges and universities can raise tuition to the national Consumer Price Index without receiving a waiver from the Department of Higher Education. According to information presented to the curators on Thursday, the national CPI for 2015 is expected to be 1.0 percent when final figures are released next month.

Last year, a projected 1.8 percent rate of inflation in December had dropped to just 0.8 percent by January because of a sharp drop in gasoline prices. Curators approved a tuition increase of 0.8, though curator David Steelman of Rolla, a former member of the General Assembly, voted no. He said the university needs to make a stronger case for more state support to avoid future tuition hikes. 

Comparing resident undergraduate tuition and fees at the four campuses to public doctoral institutions nationwide, all four UM campuses were less than the national average of $10,354 for the current academic year. UMSL had the highest tuition and fees for the UM system, at $10,065. The UM average is  $9,687.

Judged against tuition and fees at comparable institutions in the eight states bordering Missouri, only the state universities in Nebraska and Oklahoma charged less per semester than the UM average.

Proposed increases in fees at UMSL include $94.70 for the joint engineering program with Washington University; the second year of a 10 percent increase for undergraduate nursing students; and a restructuring of fees for online courses.

UMSL Chancellor Tom George announced at the meeting that Express Scripts will provide $2.5 million for scholarships and support for the campus Bridge Program which helps prepare high school students for success in college.

The gift will fund up to 20 new UMSL scholarships each year for the next five years, with preference given to participants in the Bridge Program from public high schools in north St. Louis County.

In a presentation to the curators, George said Express Scripts has given the campus more than $6.5 million to scholarships, academic programs and new buildings.

In an interview, George said the scholarship support is crucial to the campus.

“The average family for our students is about $50,000,” he said. “If you look at a Mizzou students, it's about $110,000 thousand. The most Pell-grant eligible students are right on our campus. That's very important money.”

A budget crunch at UMSL, prompted in part by a drop in enrollment and an increase in merit scholarships, led to the campus reversing course last month and canceling the creation of a new School of Public Policy and Administration.

The campus is trying to save $8.5 million this fiscal year, about 6 percent of its operating budget. It imposed a hiring freeze a year ago, when it said the budget shortfall was $2 million. Salary increases at the campus have been held down or eliminated.

New curator joins the board

At the start of the meeting, the newest member of the board, Yvonne Sparks of the 1st congressional district St. Louis, was sworn in. She is the assistant vice president and community development officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Yvonne Sparks is sworn in as a member of the Board of Curators.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Yvonne Sparks is sworn in as a member of the Board of Curators.

Sparks was named to the board by Nixon for a term ending Jan. 1, 2021. She will serve on the board for now, but her nomination is subject to Senate confirmation once the General Assembly reconvenes next month.

Sparks, who is African-American, was named to the board last month, a few days after racial tension in Columbia led to the resignation of the chancellor at Mizzou and the president of the university system. She is the second black member of the board, along with David Steward of St. Louis.

The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.

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.