COLUMBIA — Add the University of Missouri to the growing number of schools considering three-year undergraduate degrees to reduce college costs.
University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee told anxious employees Wednesday that the gloomy economy and continued lack of adequate state support will force the four-campus system to consider the option of a "no-frills degree."
He cautioned that the idea of a truncated undergraduate degree program is merely for discussion's sake — at least for now. There is no specific proposal on the table.
"People just can't afford to waste time and money anymore," Forsee told about 100 people on the Columbia campus at the final in a series of town hall budget meetings for students, professors and campus workers. "There's a national appetite to get through faster ... and finish cheaper."
Three years of undergraduate education is the norm in Europe, but so far only a handful of U.S. schools, including Bates College in Maine and Ball State University in Indiana, have followed suit.
Gov. Jay Nixon has said that statewide higher education spending must be cut by about $50 million in the coming fiscal year, a relatively minor hit compared to some cash-strapped states.
California, for example, has approved a 32 percent fee increase for students attending that state's top public schools. Those increases come on top of 20 percent spending cuts and enrollment cuts.
Nixon struck a deal with Forsee and other higher education leaders that calls for tuition and academic fees at Missouri's public four-year schools to remain frozen at current rates for the second consecutive year. The pact is subject to approval by state lawmakers, who return to Jefferson City next month.
Forsee also talked about other cost-saving approaches Wednesday, including pursuit of new ways to finish delayed construction projects. The university system has seen its efforts to get state money for capital construction projects such as a new cancer research center in Columbia repeatedly fall short in recent years.
Forsee said he will return to Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis and Rolla in early 2010 to meet with civic leaders about possible public-private partnerships.
He said that it's time to move past "the old-fashioned way of waiting for the state ... or relying on donors" to help pay for big-ticket construction projects.
The former Sprint Nextel CEO, who is nearing completion of his second year leading the university, also spoke publicly for the first time about the controversy surrounding his request that federal lawmakers from Missouri oppose climate change legislation.
Displaying a PowerPoint slide titled "Lost in Translation," Forsee said that his concern about proposed cap-and-trade legislation was driven by his desire to protect the university's fiscal resources, not partisan politics.
His translation of the letter, which was subsequently criticized by student protesters and several Democratic members of Congress: "We have no money. Give us some help."
Paul Pitchford, an educational leadership and policy analysis professor, credited Forsee's steady hand in the midst of what he called "a mess."
"I have confidence in what our president is doing," he said. "He has made measured responses based on the data at hand."
Pitchford was more skeptical about the suggested three-year degree, a shift whose boosters include U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is a former Tennessee governor, federal education secretary and University of Tennessee president.
"We have a responsibility to provide a comprehensive education for our students," Pitchford said. "I'm afraid a three-year degree might get in the way of that."