Higher education stunned by budget cuts

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

P The push by Gov. Bob Holden and Speaker Jim Kreider to add millions of dollars to the school foundation formula contributed to the huge cuts in funding for higher education in order to balance the state budget.

As Missouri Gov. Bob Holden and some legislative leaders touted more funding for education during the legislative session that ended last month, state-funded colleges and universities took the brunt of huge cuts to balance the state budget.

In a session marked by revenue forecasts that got bleaker as the session grew longer, more funding for elementary and secondary education became the battle cry for Holden and Jim Kreider, House speaker. The legislature increased funding for the school foundation formula, which determines how much state support each public school district will receive. But about a dozen districts, including Cape Girardeau's, aren't likely to see any funding increase in the coming school year from the state because of a variety of factors that go into the funding formula.

And while state funding for public schools that offer education for pre-schoolers through seniors in high school was being increased by $135 million, appropriations for higher education were being dramatically slashed as part of the overall state budget-balancing act.

The way this year's legislature handled education funding makes many Missourians involved in the legislative process -- as well as those who must make ends meet on college and university campuses -- wonder why a legislative majority and Holden don't consider higher education to be part of their thrust when they talk about meeting the needs of our future generations.

Tuition, fees help prop state budget

Part of the answer, of course, is the fact that colleges and universities charge tuition, while elementary and secondary schools don't.

Thus, it appears those who pushed for more funding for public schools decided to let higher education fend for itself by raising tuition and fees and by cutting programs and employees.

The cuts already have begun. The four-campus University of Missouri system, for example, announced last week it will raise tuition another $9 a credit hour on top of the 8.4 percent boost in tuition in fees just two months ago.

Southeast Missouri State University administrators will be asking the board of regents June 12 to consider a variety of cutbacks and tuition-fee increases. Faced with the latest round of budget trimming, Southeast will be seeking approval for another $6 increase for each credit hour of course work. This means Southeast students will be paying $23 a credit hour more next fall than they did in the recently ended semester.

Methodology will have longlasting effect

The burden for colleges and universities isn't just a matter of temporary cuts to help the state balance this year's budgets. The legislature's methodology in getting the budget to balance means crucial shortfalls will continue to exist in available state revenue for future fiscal years as well. And schools that are using up reserves to pay bills just to complete the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, must plan prudently, as Southeast is doing, to build back those reserves.

Many other state programs were hard hit in this year's budgeting process. But higher education has taken the biggest cuts as the governor and others pushed more spending for the rest of public education -- and, in the process, made choices that will guarantee a heavy burden in future years to maintain that level of funding for students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Holden and his legislative supporters will, no doubt, pat themselves on the back for increasing funding to Missouri's elementary and secondary education system. But, in doing so, they may have created a fiscal quagmire that will be all but impossible to escape in future state budgets.

It will take years to assess the damage to higher education as a result of this single-vision budget maneuvering. Despite the bold and drastic steps being taken to guarantee college students will have high-quality opportunities this fall, college and university officials face a bleak period of recovery from the onslaught of this year's financial hatchet job.

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