Missouri colleges told to prepare for deep budget cuts

Friday, February 19, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri lawmakers and university presidents are painting a bleak picture of future higher education funding as student enrollment rises across the state.

Federal stimulus funds targeted for education are expected to run out in 2012, meaning states may have make deep cuts to higher education if tax revenues do not rebound quickly.

"As bad as 2011 looks for us, in 2012 we're going over a cliff," Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, told education officials at a House appropriations committee this week. "Look ahead 16 or 17 months and plan now for what you're going to do when you get less money."

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon struck a deal with higher education leaders last fall that calls for tuition to remain flat at Missouri's public colleges and universities for the second consecutive year, so long as the state cuts no more than 5.2 percent from their budgets. The pact is subject to approval by state lawmakers.

University officials said their institutions are dramatically curbing repairs and maintenance, changing class sizes and availability, and becoming more energy-efficient in anticipation of the expected 5.2 percent cut for the next school year and the potential for greater cuts in the future.

Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Wagner told The Associated Press on Friday that federal stimulus funds have largely shielded higher education institutions because states are limited to budget cuts of about 7 percent to receive those funds. But soon that money will be spent, the restriction will be lifted "and then," he said, "all of that is gone."

Once the cuts are expanded, the tuition freeze will probably be lifted, he said.

Wagner said larger cuts could mean big changes on some campuses. Students are going to face larger class sizes and classes being offered less frequently, he said.

"It's hard to keep cuts of that magnitude out of the classroom," Wagner said.

The University of Southern Missouri, like most state schools, has eliminated jobs and reduced waste, said school president Bruce Speck.

"We've already done a lot of the things you're asking us to do," Speck told the legislative committee. "There's not a whole lot of fat."

He said his university is considering increasing student fees, closing computer labs, consolidating departments and moving to a four-day work week. Other schools said they're renting space to other institutions, reducing maintenance and not replacing broken equipment.

"We know with some of these changes being made, quality will not be easy to sustain in the long run," University of Central Missouri President Aaron Podolefsky said.

With enrollment at Missouri State University at an all-time high with 23,000 students, the school is trying to balance immediate budget needs with long-term goals.

"Students and their families are obviously concerned about their tuition costs, but they also want their level of education maintained," Missouri State president Mike Nietzel said.

Many state universities cited concerns over growing enrollment as people return to school to learn new job skills.

University of Missouri vice president Nikki Krawitz said enrollment at her school has increased 26 percent in the last decade while state funding has declined.

Committee members asked why universities haven't limited enrollment.

"I sure hope it doesn't come to that, that we have to turn away young ambitious people who want to learn," Wagner said.

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