If you’re an employee, a student or just a friend of our university, the past week’s headlines must have seemed even grimmer than usual. "Funding woes at heart of UM curators' concerns" was big news Thursday night. Friday evening we were told, "Forsee primes UM curators for tuition hikes."
The curators appear primed for not only a tuition hike but for a whack at a retirement system that already ranks 15th of 15 Midwest peer institutions. If they have a plan to do anything about faculty salaries, which currently rank last among a national group of peers, they’re keeping that to themselves.
Oddly, President Forsee has not yet asked my advice. If he did, I’d suggest that he be bold with a tuition hike and cautious with any pension changes.
Currently, a typical in-state undergraduate student on the Columbia campus pays $5,894 a year in tuition, according to the university website. That buys 24 credits. We have more than 30,000 students. The website also tells me that about half of those students are getting some sort of financial aid other than loans.
President Forsee told the curators last week that he’s expecting a cut in next year’s state appropriation of about 10 percent. So the tuition freeze deal he made with the governor – a deal that probably made more sense politically than fiscally anyway – will be thawed.
The state’s contribution to the campus general operating budget (that’s the part that pays such things as salaries and benefits) is $179 million this year. That’s down from $189 million last year. A 10 percent cut, then, would be either $18 or $19 million, depending on your starting point.
My suggestion: Raise tuition by at least $1,500 a year. That would produce more than $45 million in new revenue. Give half of that back to the students in financial aid. Now we’ve covered the state reduction, protected needy students and even have a few million to spend on raises for faculty and staff.
Of course, there might be one or two objections to what I’ll generously call the Forsee Plan. One might predictably come from the parents of students who pay the full fare. To them, President Forsee could say, if you want the best public education in the state – and that’s what we provide – you’ve got to pay for it. Besides, it’s still a bargain. Look at what Wash U. would charge.
Then there’s the matter of the law. As you recall, the legislature has decreed that tuition must not increase by more than the inflation rate unless the Coordinating Board for Higher Education approves. That should be an easy sell. Surely the board would see higher tuition as preferable to the continued erosion in quality of the state’s flagship university. “World class,” the aspiration that’s often voiced about MU, has a price tag.
And now about those pensions. Clearly, the direction university planners are headed is away from our traditional defined benefit pension toward a defined contribution model for future hires. The No. 1 objective is described as “mitigation of long-term risks to the institution.”
The preferred model would shift those risks to the individual. Those most at risk would be those least able to afford it, those most dependent on their pensions and least equipped to make the investment decisions that would be required by a 401(k) or similar plan.
So I hope President Forsee looks long and hard for ways to keep at least a modified version of our present plan, even if that requires a bigger contribution from employees in the future.
That should be tolerable. After all, under the Forsee Plan for tuition, they’d be getting a raise.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.