Some Missouri universities struggle with setting tuition

Tuesday, April 14, 2009 | 2:43 p.m. CDT; updated 3:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JOPLIN — The standoff over higher education funding in the Legislature has some universities and students in a holding pattern over tuition and financial assistance.

Gov. Jay Nixon has promised not to cut university funding in the 2009-2010 budget from current levels if they agree not to raise tuition. But state lawmakers have not yet approved the deal.

Universities typically set tuition costs for the coming year in the spring, giving students a chance to decide which schools will provide the best deal and the most help with financial assistance.

But the budget uncertainty has presented Missouri universities with two choices: go ahead and leave tuition unchanged, banking on the Legislature agreeing to Nixon's terms, or put off a decision and potentially lose prospective students to other schools.

Amanda Cornelison, 19, is among those caught in the middle. The Missouri Southern State University sophomore said she was attracted to the Joplin school because of its financial assistance, but the university has yet to set tuition or determine how much assistance it will offer next year.

"I'm trying to get an apartment right now, and I can't really budget for it because I don't know how much to put aside," Cornelison said. "It's basically a big question mark right now."

A decision may come soon. University President Bruce Speck on Monday said he would ask the Board of Governors Friday to approve tuition without an increase for next year.

Missouri Southern has set its tuition as late as May, said Kathy Feith, director of financial aid.

"It's just not ideal," Feith said of the delays.

The decision to go ahead without a budget decision is driven by competitive concerns.

Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau and Missouri State University in Springfield already have agreed to flat tuition rates.

In addition, the four campuses making up the University of Missouri System recently approved flat tuition for next year, contingent on the Legislature not cutting its core funding, said system spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead.

That has Missouri Southern officials worried they'll fall behind.

"The longer we wait, the less competitive we become," Speck said.

Feith said parents and students are getting frustrated as the school can't say how much financial assistance it can provide for next year.

"In this economic situation, families are trying to make a good budgetary plan, and this makes it hard to make a decision," she said. "It creates some struggles and angst for families."

Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg plans to recommend tuition stay the same at an April 23 meeting of its board, said spokesman Jeff Murphy. The school already has agreed not to raise its housing rates.

Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, however, is waiting for Nixon's proposal to pass the Legislature. Missouri Western spokesman Kent Heier said the university typically doesn't set its tuition until May, so it shouldn't have an effect.

"We're not overly concerned with what other universities are doing right now," Heier said, adding that the university expects to eventually approve flat tuition for 2009-2010.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the House and Senate have funded the same core appropriations for Missouri's universities as last year but the full Senate hasn't approved the final budget.

But Speck said he has received enough positive comments from lawmakers that he was confident in recommending the flat tuition.

"Politically, this seems like it's just going to happen," he said.

At the beginning of the year, state leaders proposed a 15 percent to 25 percent budget cut for higher education while state law would have limited the universities to raising tuition by only one-half of one percent this year.


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