Solution to SEMO, TRCC feud sought before next session

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Missouri's higher education commissioner said Monday that he hopes a dispute between Three Rivers Community College and Southeast Missouri State University over regional sites they used to run together will be resolved before the next legislative session.

However, a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by Three Rivers remains pending, and the schools said they see advantages to the split.

Higher education commissioner Gregory Fitch said he is talking to both schools. He said the Coordinating Board for Higher Education has heard from Three Rivers officials, plans to hear from Southeast Missouri officials and will look to make a recommendation at its December board meeting. He said it's too soon to know what form it may take.

Fitch said there are two key questions to be answered: "Are the students being served appropriately? Are we doing that in the best way possible?"

Both schools were asked in recent weeks to respond in writing to several questions about the educational center sites, their funding and enrollment.

"Our intent is to try and settle this before the legislative session," he said, adding that lawmakers will want to know services are not being duplicated.

State Rep. Gayle Kingery, a Poplar Bluff Republican who chairs the House's higher education committee, has said that he will work for a solution, as well. He did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment.

Officials at both Three Rivers and Southeast Missouri said they see advantages for students from the split: the potential to serve more students, greater choice in their education, and greater ease in dealing with one school rather than two.

Southeast Missouri said it has more than 400 additional students enrolled at the three centers from last year, while Three Rivers reported a total decline of about 300 students after the separation.

Even so, "we are very satisfied and pleased with that number," said Three Rivers' President John F. Cooper. He said much of the loss came when students received "misinformation" about their options following the eviction. He said Three Rivers' new centers will reach more over time.

"We now feel like we are out from underneath the thumb of Southeast Missouri," he said.

Art Wallhausen, associate to the president at Southeast Missouri, said the school had spent close to $500,000, upgrading computers and science equipment since the separation.

The school has taken in more students who don't meet Southeast Missouri's moderately selective admission standard, but he said those students do not take a full course load. He said the figure is not much higher than at the main campus in Cape Girardeau, which usually stands at about 25 percent.

Both schools also reduced tuition at their educational centers.

Heath Robins, 28, of Advance, is a student at Southeast Missouri who also has a part-time job at the school. He previously took some agribusiness classes through Three Rivers but thinks many students like dealing with one school instead of two.

"As far as I can see as a student, I haven't had a problem with the switch to one entity," he said.

Edith Hente, 58, of Dexter opted to stay with Three Rivers and is studying childcare and guidance at its new Malden center. She said it might be more convenient for other students if the schools could come together again, so they could have all the resources they need under one roof. But she said the new arrangement hasn't caused any problems for her studies.

"I hope things work out, but I know Three Rivers is going out of their way to make everything as it should be," she said.

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