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Audit finds Missouri campuses raise fees when they can’t raise tuition

An extreme closeup of U.S. currency.
kevindooley via Flickr
An extreme closeup of U.S. currency.

Public campuses and universities in Missouri, hampered by a legal limit on tuition increases and dwindling state support, are resorting to increasing fees to raise money, a state audit found.

The audit, released Tuesday, emphasized what the schools have been highlighting for some time: Students and their families are being forced to shoulder a greater share of the cost of higher education in Missouri.

“When considering total revenues from state appropriations and net tuition and fees, from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2015,” the audit report said, “the portion contributed by state appropriations decreased from 53 percent in fiscal year 2009 to 42 percent in fiscal year 2015 and the portion contributed by net tuition and fees rose from 47 percent to 58 percent….

“If state appropriations are decreased, tuition and fees must increase. While cost containment efforts have been made, they have not been enough to cover the reduction in state appropriations.”

The result: It’s harder for Missouri students to afford to go to a public campus.

“Significant reductions in state appropriations have resulted in a greater portion of public higher education costs being passed along to students and families,” the audit said. “In addition, reductions in overall state grant aid, and specifically reductions in the amount of need-based aid, have also had a negative impact on the affordability of higher education for students in the state.”

In response, the Department of Higher Education said that a state law passed in 2007 “has effectively controlled the cost of tuition and fees paid by full-time undergraduate resident students at Missouri’s public colleges and universities – keeping tuition increases among the lowest in the nation.”

It also noted that campuses have worked to control costs to help keep college affordable.

The law limits tuition increases to the rate of inflation unless an institution seeks a waiver from the department. Such waivers have been issued twice, in 2011 and 2012.

In its response to the audit, the department said that while the law “was not intended to cover every potential cost students may encounter as they work toward earning a degree, it helps contain higher education costs for thousands of Missouri residents every year.”

The department pledged to continue efforts to keep costs down by enforcing the law.

Down the list nationwide

National data shows that in-state undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities in Missouri had the lowest rate of increase of any state since 2008. But among the many numbers included in the state audit were three comparisons that highlighted a different perspective on where Missouri stands among other states and alongside the national average.

  • It ranks 43rd in the nation in state funding for higher education for each $1,000 in personal income. The figure for Missouri in fiscal year 2015 was $4.09, compared with the national average of $5.55.
  • On average state appropriations per student, Missouri ranks 39th, and the state’s share dropped 27.8 percent between 2009 and 2014.
  • When it comes to the percent of state aid based on need, rather than on merit, the state ranks 34th, at 56 percent, compared with 76 percent nationwide.

Overall, the audit said, despite the law that keeps tuition increases down, schools have had to bring in revenue in other ways, such as raising fees that are required but not covered by the law.
“Specifically,” the audit said, “supplemental fees for these institutions increased by 138 percent, from $29.5 million in fiscal year 2009 to $70.3 million in fiscal year 2015, and by approximately 112 percent per FTE (full-time equivalent) student, from $276 in fiscal year 2009 to $586 in fiscal year 2015.

“While supplemental fees make up approximately 7 percent of net tuition and fees for fiscal year 2015, this percentage has increased from 4 percent in fiscal year 2009.”

'Significant reductions in state appropriations have resulted in a greater portion of public higher education costs being passed along to students and families.' -- State audit

The department’s response says that the audit “does not substantiate the claim that institutions are ‘adding supplemental fees as a way to generate additional revenues,’ rather than, say, to cover new course offerings, new program offerings, evolving delivery costs or upgrades, or simply reflecting enrollment increases over the audit period.”

Also, since the law covers only in-state undergraduate students, schools are more aggressively seeking students from other categories whose tuition can be greater.

“Officials at two public schools said they actively pursue out-of-state,” the audit report said, “and, in a few cases, international students to keep enrollment levels high and boost tuition revenues because these students typically pay higher tuition.”

On the cost side, the audit said schools are trying to save money in a variety of ways, such as cutting administration, deferring maintenance and increasing class size as enrollments rise.

But, it added, “officials from at least 2 of the 5 institutions interviewed indicated additional cost reduction efforts would not be possible without negatively impacting the quality of education programs.”

Follow Dale 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.