Higher ed- How Missouri really ranks

Saturday, December 21, 2002

By R. Wilson Freyermuth Jr.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Our state's leaders place great rhetorical value upon the role of higher education in Missouri's economic future.

On her Web site, state Sen. Sarah Steelman of Rolla states that Missouri colleges and universities should "provide a world-class education" and thus "should expect sufficient funds to accomplish their missions."

Gov. Bob Holden recently remarked, "Higher education is the foundation for Missouri's 21st century economic renewal."

These comments reflect an important reality: In the information age, Missouri's economic future depends upon a college-educated work force.

Despite this rhetoric, Missouri's colleges and universities approach fiscal year 2004 with a bleak outlook. In fiscal year 2003, which began July 1, Missouri reduced its appropriation for higher education by 10.2 percent. With state revenue down again, most expect Holden to order a midyear withholding of funds. Such a withholding would presumably form the baseline for a permanent cut in state appropriations for fiscal year 2004, which begins next July 1.

Times are tough, and nearly every state is experiencing the effects of economic stagnation. Yet available data suggest that most states have maintained their investment in higher education. The most recent Chronicle of Higher Education reported that for 2002-2003, thirty-five states increased state appropriations for higher education (though by a modest average of 1.2 percent). Only Missouri and Oregon reduced appropriations by 10 percent or more. In terms of percentage change in appropriation levels, Missouri ranked 49th of the 50 states.

If one tried to see the Chronicle data as a half-full glass, he might argue that, because the data ranked Missouri 24th in total dollars appropriated for higher education, the situation is not so bad. Indeed, some of our political leaders appear to have adopted this view. State Sen. Ken Jacob of Columbia dismissed the Chronicle report: "The comparisons don't really mean a lot. I don't care what the other states are doing."

But the glass is not half full, and the comparisons do mean a lot. Sadly, the Chronicle data actually flatter our state because it focuses solely upon absolute appropriations without accounting for population levels. After adjusting the Chronicle data to reflect per-capita appropriations, Missouri ranks 47th at $155 per citizen. The average state spends $227 per person to support higher education -- 50 percent more than Missouri. Even prior to the cuts in the current fiscal, Missouri's per-capita spending -- then $173 per person -- badly trailed the national average.

The comparison with neighboring states is even more distressing. As the table below suggests, Missouri provides substantially lower support per person for higher education than its neighbors: Tennessee spends 30 percent more, Illinois 44 percent more, Arkansas and Oklahoma 50 percent more, Iowa and Kansas 70 percent more, Kentucky 75 percent more and Nebraska nearly 100 percent more.

State Appropriations

for Higher Education

(per resident) Nebraska$303.92

Students, parents, faculty and staff bear the consequences of this profound funding gap.

Students and their parents suffer through higher educational costs. Tuition at Missouri institutions increased dramatically in 2002 and likely will do so again in 2003. As students face larger debt loads, further tuition increases will threaten the state's ability to attract the brightest students and increase access barriers for students from low-income backgrounds.

Faculty and staff suffer through noncompetitive salaries -- exacerbated by several years without pay raises -- which has prompted some of our best faculty members to leave for academic institutions in other states. And some of our most experienced teachers have been lost due to early retirement plans adopted following last year's appropriation cut. Yet as faculties shrink, student enrollments are reaching record levels, producing larger classes and greater stress on physical facilities.

The budget crisis has brought Missouri higher education to a crossroads. Our Legislature, which has a significant number of newly elected lawmakers -- faces a daunting challenge.

To our legislators: Please recognize that the Missouri Constitution requires that "the general assembly shall adequately maintain the state university and such other educational institutions as it may deem necessary." -- Article. 9, Section 9(b). This language belies the notion that public higher education is merely a discretionary expenditure.

Consistent with this constitutional obligation, legislators must assert the leadership necessary to ensure that Missouri sufficiently invests in higher education. This task will be hard and unpopular.

It will require more than rhetoric about higher education's value and sound bites about low taxes.

It will require that legislators educate our state residents about the budgeting and revenue-raising process and the true cost of governing our state.

It will require legislators to deliver the bad news to their constituents that our state provides far less per-capita support for higher education than every state with which we compete for economic development.

It will require legislators to challenge constituents to authorize a responsible system of budgeting and taxation that can support an appropriate investment in higher education rather than the flawed system produced by the Hancock Amendment.

Finally, if legislators cannot raise the revenue necessary to fund the state's existing educational infrastructure, then they must make the hard decision to close one or more schools and redirect scarce revenue to improve those institutions best situated to carry out higher education's goals of teaching, research and service.

R. Wilson Freyermuth Jr. is an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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