Critical decisions affect higher education

Thursday, May 3, 2007

By Robert B. Stein

Missouri is faced with increased national and international economic competition. In an environment where other countries are producing millions of college graduates with fluency in English and are offering attractive incentives for businesses to relocate, Missouri must be able to present compelling reasons for businesses to locate and grow in the Show-Me State.

A qualified workforce and an engaged citizenry are calling cards that can make a difference. A coordinated higher-education system will position Missouri to maximize its resources. And while higher education should not be managed from the state Capitol, legislation that becomes a catalyst for doing business differently can have a positive impact.

Few bills have been more controversial than Senate Bill 389, better known as the MOHELA bill. This bill, however, represents an opportunity for moving Missouri's system of higher education forward toward the goal of becoming a lead competitor.

The capital-funding projects established in SB 389 through the Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative start an engine that will help colleges and universities further develop modern facilities using cutting-edge equipment in crucial high-demand areas. World-class education requires long overdue capital support for all of our public campuses, including support for the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Missouri-Columbia projects that were recently removed.

The "Access Missouri" program included in SB 389 creates a single need-based aid program that will focus state aid dollars on Missouri's financially needy students and makes the process simple and predictable. This streamlined program coupled with increased financial resources will enhance accessibility for thousands of college students.

SB 389 includes sections intended to bring about tuition stabilization at public institutions. There has been much disagreement regarding whether these provisions should be included and whether they will effectively stop tuition increases. I believe SB 389 would make those decisions more transparent, highlight the connections between tuition costs and financial support from the state and create more accountability for tuition decisions.

As the state provides institutions with increased support, there must also be greater accountability. SB 389 strengthens critical evaluation of our higher education system through the establishment of statewide and institutional performance measures.

Higher education should enjoy widespread support. The many facets of SB 389 have great potential to move Missouri forward in significant ways if we keep our focus on the ultimate goal: working collaboratively and responsibly on behalf of Missouri citizens.

Robert B. Stein is the Missouri commissioner of higher education in Jefferson City, Mo.

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