Southeast severs ties to Poplar Bluff community college

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Southeast Missouri State University's decision to eliminate Three Rivers Community College courses at its three Bootheel higher education centers has outraged officials at the Poplar Bluff community college and prompted its president to file a complaint with the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

University president Dr. Ken Dobbins announced last Friday that the Cape Girardeau school will expand course offerings to the Sikeston, Kennett and Malden higher education centers to benefit students and improve funding for the centers.

Three Rivers officials accuse Southeast of kicking the community college out of the higher education centers effective at the end of the spring semester.

The coordinating board should rescind Southeast's action and enforce the educational partnership and an existing rental agreement, Three Rivers president Dr. John Cooper said Tuesday.

Dr. Gregory Fitch, the state's higher education commissioner, said he plans to sit down with both Cooper and Dobbins in an effort to mediate the dispute.

Fitch said the state board clearly has the legal authority to review the issue.

State Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, accused Dobbins of orchestrating the breakup to generate revenue.

"I'm a little disappointed and upset," said Kingery, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. "It is breaking up a partnership that has been good for both schools and the students."

John Stanard of Poplar Bluff, chairman of the community college's board of trustees, also criticized Southeast's actions.

"It is unprofessional and a sad day for education," said Stanard.

Southeast's move will eliminate 826 students from Three Rivers' enrollment, equal to about a fourth of the community college's total enrollment this spring and amounting to a loss of about $765,000 in student tuition, he said. For the fall 2004 semester, 1,636 students were enrolled in Southeast classes in Malden, Kennett and Sikeston.

Southeast officials say Three Rivers has been unwilling to help shoulder the cost of operating the higher education centers while benefiting from offering freshman- and sophomore-level college courses.

Southeast and the community college entered into a three-year agreement last spring in which the Poplar Bluff school agreed to pay Southeast a facilities-use fee starting with the fall 2004 semester.

Dobbins said last fall's fee amounted to $61,205. But Three Rivers paid Southeast only $50,784, insisting the higher figure claimed by the university was miscalculated.

Dobbins said Three Rivers has refused to pay the remaining $10,421.

Stanard estimated Southeast stood to gain about $125,000 annually from rental fees that would be paid by Three Rivers during the fall, spring and summer semesters combined.

But even if no funding dispute had occurred, Dobbins said, the university in time would have eliminated the Three Rivers courses at the centers.

He said the change will result in less confusion for students, eliminating the current situation where students at the centers must cope with two different academic calendars, schedules of courses and financial aid offices. He said the move is a response to the state's need for better access to higher education at an affordable price.

To that end, the university plans to offer lower-level courses -- mostly night classes -- at the higher education centers at a cost to students of $110 per credit hour beginning this summer. That's about $50 less a credit hour than in-state freshmen and sophomores at Southeast currently pay for classes and about the same price Three Rivers students pay to take classes at the area centers.

Southeast traditionally has provided upper-level courses at all three centers as well as 50 percent of the lower-level courses at the Sikeston Area Higher Education Center. But that's not enough to break even, Dobbins said.

Student fees for Southeast courses at the three centers generate about $300,000. But Dobbins said the three centers cost about $1.1 million annually to operate. The result is a net cost annually of $800,000.

Southeast's board of regents approved the move in a closed meeting two weeks ago. The regents insisted the centers need to be self-sufficient financially, Dobbins said Tuesday.

As part of its move, Southeast promises to spend $250,000 to upgrade computers for students to use in the higher education centers.

Dobbins claims Three Rivers hasn't upgraded computer equipment at the centers as promised. But Three Rivers officials disagree. Much of the computer equipment at the centers was originally provided by the community college, they said.

Staff writer Marc Powers contributed to this report.

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