State funding for colleges at lowest level in nearly 10 years

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- As they watch their state funding slow to a trickle, presidents and administrators at Missouri's public universities and colleges are coming to grips with reality: things aren't going to improve for some time.

State funding is down to its lowest levels in nearly 10 years and tuition prices keep going up. At the same time, enrollments are rising.

The situation could force universities to become more efficient, according to some, including Gordon Davies, a senior adviser to the Education Commission of the States.

"I don't believe universities are all as efficient as they could be. I think they are all trying," said Davies.

But officials at some institutions warn that they can only take so much belt-tightening before education suffers.

A number of Missouri institutions already have evaluated which academic programs should stay and which should go. At Truman State University, for example, a review of courses in 1992 resulted in nearly 100 being eliminated. Now, programs at the liberal arts institution number fewer than 50, the budget director is also the school's police chief and Magruder's executive assistant is also the dean of admissions.

"We've already done our review. We've been doing it for years," said retiring president Jack Magruder.

While he agreed with Davies that diminishing funds force universities to focus on being more efficient, Magruder warned that "you can't starve an institution into excellence."

Kenneth Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University, said that in 1991, state funds provided 79 percent of a college's budget. Today, that number is 52 percent.

At Southeast Missouri State, that has meant cutbacks in staff including deans, departments and administrators.

"We've already taken the fluff out," Dobbins said.

The University of Missouri system and Southwest Missouri State University were cited in a recent state audit for their initiatives to assess the cost-effectiveness of various academic programs.

Bruno Schmidt, vice president for academic affairs at Southwest Missouri State University, said the school's academic program review committee looks into whether certain courses are offered too frequently and whether some consolidation is needed.

The same course examination has been going on at the University of Missouri system, although Steve Lehmkuhle, vice president for academic affairs, said an analysis showed only drastic moves could make up the difference in state funding cuts.

If the University of Missouri wanted to quickly recoup the $40 million cut by the state last year, the system's medical, dental and veterinary medicine schools would have be shut down. Another option would be to eliminate 80 programs, "which guts the university," Lehmkuhle said.

The right solution, he said, may be consolidating programs.

"We are all going to have to closely examine situations and (programs) on a more routine basis. We have to look and see if the state can afford multiple courses at several colleges."

Davies said the future of higher education in Missouri could be determined during the current financial challenge, along with how much the state should contribute.

"I think it's time for a major new review of who benefits and who pays for higher education," Davies said.

"You can't do away with the public responsibility to pay to some extent, but what that extent is is what's being debated."

University of Missouri-Rolla Chancellor Gary Thomas said protecting low-income students is getting harder.

"We have an obligation to provide access to those who can't afford it," Thomas said. "We have a choice. Do we want students from lower economic status? And if we do, someone's got to subsidize it."

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