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Higher education balks at proposed budget cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - Public colleges and universities in Missouri had a predictable reaction to Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget cuts: We've already done our part.

"For more than 10 years, higher education and the four campuses of the University of Missouri system have been doing more with less," said Steve Owens, interim president of the system, in a statement.

"The university now receives less annual state support than we did in 2001, yet we now educate 17,000 more students, generate $85 million more in sponsored research, provide $23.5 million more in unreimbursed health care, offer a broader scope of extension services, including free disaster relief, and create more new jobs through economic development."

David Russell, the state's commissioner for higher education, noted that in his State of the State speech Tuesday night, Nixon said that too many families in Missouri cannot afford higher education, so schools must keep their tuition at reasonable levels.

But to do that, Russell said, and to provide adequate support for financial aid programs, cuts to other parts of the higher education budget will be needed, and those threaten to erode the quality of the education that students receive.

"The governor understands the power of higher education to lift students' earning power and grow the state economy," Russell said. "The governor's speech emphasized the importance of growing jobs for Missourians. To do that, we must provide citizens with high quality academic credentials and skills that adapt to changing workforce needs and attract industry to the state."

Russell said that the proposed 12.5 percent cut to the budgets of public colleges and universities equals $118 million less than this year's total appropriation of $742 million. Such reductions would put public higher education around the same level of state funding as it had in 1997.

The schools have reacted to earlier cuts with a number of cost-saving measures, Russell said, from collaboration on degree programs to freezes on hiring and salaries. "Our institutions promote access and affordability," he added, "but resources can only stretch so far."

At the four-campus UM system, curators discussed likely tuition increases, probably about 3 percent, at their December meeting on the St. Louis campus.

While trying to keep such increases as low as possible, the university has cut expenses, but those efforts have hurt the system's standing in terms of support when it is compared with neighboring states.

"During the last decade," Owens said in his statement, "both the state and the university have continuously made difficult choices and cuts that have been felt by all Missourians. This year will be no different and the university will continue to work with all segments of the state to share the burden of a slowly recovering economy.

"The years of cuts specific to higher education, however, have placed our state 45th out of 50 states in per capita higher education funding --- lower than any of our neighboring states, any state in the Midwest and any state in the South."

Owens said that "given the historic difficulty in finding adequate funds for higher education, now is the time to begin looking at all options, including new, dedicated revenue streams."

He concluded:

"It is fair to ask how long we can continue to do more with less. After a decade of reductions in state support and implementation of operational efficiencies, we are near the point where either the level of funding will have to increase or the scope and quality of services will have to decrease."

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.