Controlling college tuition on state agenda

Sunday, December 26, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As the soon-to-be youngest member of the Missouri Senate, Jason Crowell believes he has a better perspective than most of his new colleagues on how expensive a college education can be.

"I'm probably the only member of the Senate still paying student loans," said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Although Crowell, 32, pays more than $6,000 a year in student loans and will continue doing so until 2008, he finished his degrees before the recent explosion of tuition costs in Missouri.

Since the 2000-2001 school year, the average annual tuition for a Missouri resident to attend one of the state's 13 four-year institutions has jumped 52.3 percent. In terms of dollars, the average tuition costs $5,619 this year -- an increase of $1,929 from four years ago.

To address the problem, some radical solutions are being proposed that would greatly reduce the power of the governing boards of individual universities to raise tuition.

Governor-elect Matt Blunt made the tuition issue the centerpiece of his plan for higher education during the recent election campaign.

The Republican wants to restrict school governing boards to authorizing annual tuition increases that are no higher than the rate of inflation. If a school wants a larger tuition increase, the Missouri Legislature would have to give approval.

By putting the decision in the hands of elected lawmakers rather than appointed board members, the idea goes, major tuition boosts would be rare because voters opposed to higher college costs could exact retribution at the ballot box. Officials at some universities have criticized the proposal as legislative meddling that would politicize tuition decisions.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said the details are still being hammered out.

"The governor-elect's legislative agenda is still being developed, and he and his staff have had discussions with legislators and school administrators about this proposal," Jackson said. "Like any other significant change, it will likely be, as it should be, a topic of discussion and thorough analysis by the people's representatives."

Don Dickerson, a member of the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents, said he wouldn't be adverse to some type of system that creates greater cost certainty for students, although he hopes lawmakers tread lightly in developing a plan.

"We have to be really careful about what the repercussions would be," Dickerson said.

Crowell has prefiled a bill that would lock in tuition of incoming freshmen for four years. A similar measure cleared a Senate committee this year but wasn't considered by the full chamber.

Those in the higher education community claim cuts in state funding have been the driving force behind tuition increases. During the same period average tuition in Missouri grew by more than half, however, appropriations for the department of higher education were reduced by only 8.1 percent.

Crowell said some institutions, particularly the University of Missouri system, used the state's budget problems as an excuse to extract more money from students.

"The fees they increased have gone to grow the university," Crowell said. "It hasn't gone just to offset budget cuts."

While Crowell praised officials at Southeast for aggressively seeking to cut costs and for a partial rollback of recent tuition increases after the legislature provided a modest funding boost this year, he said other schools need to do much more to eliminate unnecessary expenditures.

"I do not believe the sole answer is for the state to just give the universities more money," Crowell said.

Dickerson said revenue and expenditures both have to be part of the equation. If schools were limited on how much they could raise in tuition, the state would have to pick up the slack, he said.

"There has got to be some kind of corresponding guarantee that appropriations to the schools will be relatively constant, too," Dickerson said.

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