Missouri to freeze higher education tuition, pending approval

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- Tuition and academic fees will be frozen for the second straight year at Missouri's public four-year colleges and universities, Gov. Jay Nixon announced Tuesday.

Nixon said he will have to reduce higher education spending by 5.2 percent, or $42 million, for the next fiscal year. The schools' leaders agreed to the tuition freeze for the 2010-2011 tuition year, while the governor pledged upcoming education budget cuts will be less steep than they could have been in tough economic times.

The agreement must still be approved by Missouri lawmakers and governing boards at the colleges and universities. Nixon, a Democrat, said his administration worked with university leaders and faculty in gaining support for the freeze.

"Keeping higher education affordable is one of the best steps we can take to turn this economy around," Nixon said. "By working together to freeze tuition we are reversing a decade-long trend."

Before the freeze for the 2009-2010 academic year, Missouri's four-year colleges and universities increased tuition by an average of 7.5 percent per year over the past decade. And Nixon noted that nationally, tuition has jumped by an average of 6.5 percent in the past year. Some states saw increases of up to 17 percent.

At Southeast Missouri State University, tuition will hold steady at $208.50 per credit hour. It increased by 4.1 percent for the 2008-2009 school year.

Under Nixon's plan, higher education will be funded at about 95 percent of the current level. Southeast's $96.9 million budget includes $42.7 million from the state, the same as the previous year. The university cut $1.1 million to account for increased operating costs when it approved its budget in June. The reduction was less than anticipated because the university's state appropriation also included $5.4 million in stimulus money.

University of Missouri System president Gary Forsee said the state's universities share in the desire to keep quality education affordable.

"Today's agreement with the governor is an important step, but we have more work to do," Forsee said at the news conference. "The higher education funding model is broken."

Forsee said the tuition agreement should help smooth out the previous "roller coaster" of less state funding and higher tuition costs. He called for several steps to improve higher education, like more flexibility with e-learning options over the Internet, year-round learning choices and accelerated degree-completion programs to allow adults to more quickly obtain degrees.

He said Missouri needs to better match high school requirements to what is needed to obtain a college degree. He also supports efforts to equalize Access Missouri, the state's main financial needs-based scholarship program. Currently, students attending four-year private schools get more money through that program than those going to public schools.

Forsee couldn't yet detail where cuts will be in the University of Missouri system from the anticipated 5 percent reduction in higher education proposed by the governor. And he said higher education improvements should be made despite challenging economic times, saying "it's not an either/or, it's an and."

In a statement, Missouri State University president Michael Nietzel said, "First and foremost, higher education is about our students, and we must ensure that a four-year education remains as affordable and accessible as possible."

Future Senate Appropriations chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he will not support or oppose Nixon's plan until he knows how the overall budget will look.

"While I appreciate the governor's end goal, I believe his announcement is premature," he said in a statement. "We have yet to determine the coming year's budget consensus revenue. That means we do not yet know how much money will even be in the state's bank account to fund the critical functions of state government."

Mayer will replace state Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who is resigning the chairmanship Nov. 30 because of his campaign for Congress.

House Budget Committee chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said Nixon was taking the initiative in trying to keep tuition costs steady while anticipating another difficult budget year.

"I understand why the governor did that, to be prepared for 2011," Icet said.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said, "We appreciate the governor's tuition proposal and will put it through the normal process, along with any other budget recommendations from the governor."

The agreement allows a tuition increase for out-of-state students.

The tuition freeze was welcome news to Sandra Ray, 48, of the St. Louis suburb of St. John. Her three children, Sharon, Ryan and Taylor are all students in University of Missouri schools, and her husband was laid off from his job as a union carpenter last year.

They have taken out loans and relied on scholarship money, but the tuition freeze was a help for the family, she said. "It allowed us to feel that we have hope. It's another opportunity for them to fulfill their dreams," said Ray, who also works at the university in St. Louis. "This news is an answer. It gives you breathing space."

Southeast Missourian writer Alaina Busch contributed to this report.

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