Agreement to freeze tuition hides MU's grim financial prospects

Thursday, November 19, 2009 | 3:31 p.m. CST; updated 1:34 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 3, 2009

I wish I could be happier with the governor’s announcement about the university’s budget.

For those who’ve been too busy thinking about Thanksgiving dinner to read the front page the past couple of days, Gov. Nixon has offered and our university’s leaders have jumped at a deal that provides a second year of no tuition increases for in-state students and a budget for higher education that’s just under 95 percent of this year’s budget.

At one level, and for some bill payers, it’s a good deal. I’m sure that’s why President Forsee and Chancellor Deaton were quick to sign on. As the governor said, keeping higher education affordable is a good thing.

However, all parties must recognize that it’s another step backward. Even this deal isn’t a sure thing, by any means. And if it comes to pass, it makes a bad situation worse.

I thought the comments of Rep. Chris Kelly, as reported in Thursday’s Missourian, were ominous. Keep in mind that Chris is a strong supporter of the university and a loyal Democrat. So when he points out that the legislature — not the governor — has the real budget authority, he’s both stating the obvious and warning that with the economy still floundering and federal stimulus money largely spent, 95 percent may well be a hope rather than a reality.

Chris also urged university officials to do a better job of pressing their case with the legislature. That’s important, and President Forsee is already doing it; but it’s hard to envision much legislative largesse in such troubled times. Better economic circumstances have yielded a decade of declining state support.

The reality is grim. As President Forsee noted Wednesday, the funding model for higher education in Missouri is broken. He added, providing no details, “The time to start reforming that path is now.” Perhaps the direction of the path will be clearer after the on-campus conversations the president promises for the next couple of months.

A few numbers tell the story: This year’s general operating budget for the campus is $483 million. That’s what Budget Director Tim Rooney told the faculty meeting last month. If the 5.2 percent cut in state support promised by the governor is passed along proportionately, that translates to about $25 million less for our campus next year.

Now remember that university budgeters have been planning for 2 percent salary raises for next year. Higher salaries, they’ve said, are a high priority. Rooney said that modest raise would require another 5 percent of the general operating budget. Unless that priority has drowned in red ink, as I’m guessing it has, there’s another $24 million needed.

Math isn’t my strong suit, so I won’t try to calculate how big an increase would be needed in out-of-state tuition and the fees that aren’t frozen in order to generate $50 million or even $25 million. I doubt that even Tim Rooney could make those numbers work.

The only financially feasible alternative to the governor’s deal that I can see would have been a whopping increase in tuition for all. Hypothetically, an increase of $1,800 in annual tuition for all 30,000 students would yield $54 million. (That would have put our in-state tuition at about $10,300 a year. By sheerest coincidence, that’s the level being proposed for the University of California system, which has long been regarded as setting the quality standard among public universities.)

That’s not going to happen here, of course, so more cuts seem inevitable at an institution from which the fat has long since been surgically removed. If only “world class” meant being in the same fix as the rest of the world of higher education, we’d be on our way to being world class after all.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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