Southeast Missouri State officials respond to higher ed budget cuts

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Southeast Missouri State University could deal with a $5.2 million budget reduction under Gov. Jay Nixon's proposal to cut 12.5 percent from higher education in fiscal 2013.

Before Tuesday night's State of the State address, Nixon announced $89 million would be cut from public universities under the proposal, the largest amount to be cut from an area of the state budget with the exception of a $191 million cut to Medicaid.

Across Missouri on Wednesday, university officials and legislators responded to the proposal.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said Nixon's proposed cuts for university budgets and a $5 million increase to K-12 education funding show a pattern of "decimating higher education and treading water elsewhere."

A 12.5 percent cut to Southeast's budget would force a tuition increase higher than the rate of inflation, or of at least 3 percent, said Dr. Ken Dobbins, president of the university. That percentage would also bring the total amount of cuts to university funding from the state near 25 percent when including a 5.2 percent cut in 2011 and a 7 percent cut in 2010, Dobbins said.

The university will continue to conduct budget and academic program reviews in anticipation of cuts. There would have to be many more reductions and consolidations like the university has already conducted in recent years, Dobbins said, giving examples of a $1.6 million spending reduction by making changes to the university's health benefits program, as well as axing some academic programs and staff.

"The low hanging fruit has already been taken care of with the reductions we've had in the past," Dobbins said.

Dobbins pointed to the university's growing student population as a helping hand to dealing with budget cuts. The 2011-2012 academic year at Southeast has seen the highest-ever enrollment at the university.

He echoed Rep. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, on the effect of budget cuts to the state's future workforce.

"We cannot sacrifice quality academic programs, because employers in the state of Missouri will look to us to provide graduates that fit the workplace," Dobbins said.

Nixon proposed an idea in December that would tap $106 million in reserve funds from universities to help balance the state's budget shortfall, but the idea was later dropped. That idea did have some merit, Dobbins said. Southeast would have contributed around $10 million under the idea.

"I liked the concept of not having base budget cuts, but how we were going to get there didn't occur," he said.

The Legislature has until early May to make changes to the budget and send it back to Nixon.

Dobbins said a bright spot in the governor's proposed budget is a plan to include $105.5 million for maintaining A+, Bright Flight and Access scholarship programs.

The Access scholarships are need-based, and Dobbins said the funding is absolutely necessary for ensuring students in challenging financial situations can afford to seek a higher education.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

eragan@semissourian.com

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