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Higher education commissioner presents possible cuts in budget

The potential cuts include closing campuses, incorporating campuses into existing systems and abolishing athletics programs.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:15 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 2, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's budget director, Linda Luebbering, said the anticipated state budget shortfall is actually a quarter of a billion dollars more than originally projected by the state's top higher education official.

When Higher Education Commissioner Robert Stein laid out potential cuts to education in a letter to public college officials, he estimated the state would lose nearly $1 billion in two years when federal stabilization funds expire.

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But now, the hole he's worried about is potentially even worse.

Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget for next year includes nearly $1.2 billion in stabilization funds, $300 million of which Nixon's office anticipates will come from an extension of federal stabilization funds that the state doesn't currently have.

A tentative deal reached between Nixon and the presidents of public four-year institutions would cut more than $40 million from the higher education appropriation next year, preserving 95 percent of funding, in exchange for freezing in-state undergraduate tuition, pending approval by Missouri's legislature.

Stein's letter presented a variety of scenarios for dealing with anticipated future budget shortfalls, including closing campuses, incorporating independent campuses into university systems, abolishing athletics programs and reducing course offerings. His suggestions are based on conversations he had with eduction officials and experts across the state.

Columbia Rep. Chris Kelly, a Democrat, praised the contents of Stein's letter, which was sent two weeks ago, but said it would be difficult to implement.

"Every single person that you talk to about Missouri higher education would say there are too many institutions," Kellysaid. "Not one single person would tell you their institution ought to lose anything."

Even if none of the suggestions contained in the letter come to fruition, Kelly said it still serves an important purpose.

"His comments will kick off intellectual discussion about these things, and that's good," he said.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said she hopes the letter will inspire public colleges to work together to achieve a solution.

"I do believe that the system as it is now is not sustainable for the long term," she said.

Part of the problem, she said, is that some institutions formerly classified as colleges have become universities, with increased funding needs, a process she deemed "name inflation."

Stein said the goal of his letter was not to advocate for closing campuses but to increase the coordination between campuses across the state.

"I'm saying let's not wait until its too late," he said.

By working together, he said, campuses could more efficiently employ limited financial resources and strengthen applications for competitive federal grants. He pointed to coordination among University of Missouri System campuses as an example of successful collaboration.

In an interview before the legislative session, Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said a duplication of programs among state colleges is part of the problem.

"All these universities want to offer every degree under the sun," he said.

Reducing the number of programs and courses offered across the state is one of the suggestions in Stein's letter. He cited the proliferation of state-approved education programs as an example of this.

But Stein said the regional diversity of Missouri will make the decision of canceling or consolidating programs that much more difficult.

"There's not a single wide brush stroke that's going to work effectively across the state," he said.


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