JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's top two college presidents delivered a message state lawmakers were eager to hear Thursday: higher education is an economic engine with few peers.
University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee and Missouri State University's Michael Nietzel spoke at the final of several seminars for state senators on hot topics in the new legislative session.
They provided statistics showing how college degrees lead to higher wages, lower unemployment, more tax revenue and less individual reliance on public support.
And with the state facing with an estimated budget shortfall of $342 million in the current fiscal year and as much as $1 billion in fiscal year 2010, they promised to keep looking for ways to tighten the belts on campus.
"Higher education is an investment," Forsee said. "At the same time, I don't think higher education has done what it can to be efficient. ... We have to do a better job."
The joint appearance followed a pledge one day earlier by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to spare public colleges and universities from budget cuts in the 2010 fiscal year if the schools agree not to raise tuition for the first time in at least a decade.
That proposal requires approval by the Republican-controlled legislature. Several Senate leaders contend it's still too early to make such guarantees in what is shaping up as a tumultuous budget year.
"All of us know the value of higher education," said Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton. "I get a little nervous when we exempt one group over another before we get into the budget."
Nixon's deal applies only to the 2010 fiscal year, meaning universities still could face mid-year budget cuts during the current fiscal year that runs through June 30.
Nixon acknowledged that such a promise could create more drastic budget cuts in other areas of state government. But the governor declined to offer details on what services could be trimmed to balance the state's budget, as required by the Missouri Constitution.
Nixon said those details will emerge on Tuesday, when he unveils his budget proposal at his first State of the State address.
"The deal is, the governor proposes and the legislature disposes," Stouffer said. "That's part of the debate."
Forsee emphasized to lawmakers that the four-campus UM System continues to look for ways to cut costs.
In December, House and Senate budget leaders asked all state entities to come up with worst-case scenarios for dealing with budget cuts of 15 percent to 25 percent. Public colleges and universities warned that such cuts could force faculty layoffs, larger class sizes and the elimination of courses.
Forsee has since asked the four campus chancellors and other top administrators to give greater scrutiny to several expense categories, from overtime, travel and training to employee recognition awards.
"We're going to continue to examine everything that we do," he told lawmakers.
On average, tuition at the state's 13 four-year institutions has increased 7.5 annually over the past decade.
At MU, tuition during the 1999-2000 school year was roughly $4,600 for a full-time student. Nearly a decade later, that amount has almost doubled to $8,500 annually.
State Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, president pro tem, concluded after the presentation that his colleagues must decide whether the state's low rankings in higher education spending deserves a full-bore commitment to elevate Missouri into higher tiers.
"We're in the middle of the pack," he said, even though by one oft-cited measure Missouri ranks 47th among the states in per-capita spending on higher education. ''We need to decide where we want to be."