COLUMBIA — Higher education has been taking hard hits lately.
At a Missouri higher education summit in August, Gov. Jay Nixon told representatives from the state’s public and private education institutions to prepare for budget cuts. Nixon challenged institutions to become more efficient and do more with less.
University of Missouri System President Gary Forsee told the Board of Curators in September that a tuition increase for the system is inevitable because of a prospective 10 percent funding reduction in higher education. This would break the in-state tuition freeze that has carried through the past two years.
Meanwhile, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education began a study in September to evaluate almost 4,000 public higher education degree programs around the state to determine whether low-producing programs could be eliminated to cut costs.
With all the buzz surrounding higher education, candidates for local seats in the House of Representatives have much to say on the issue. Here’s a breakdown for each race:
Republican John Cauthorn of Mexico recognized the burden of high tuition costs on college students and their families. But he said this "might be a time to be thankful for what we've got at the moment," referring to Missouri's economic standing in relation to some other states.
Cauthorn said if tuition needs to increase to sustain the state's universities and colleges, there would be no way to avoid it. He said someone is going to have to pay for it, whether it be the state or the students.
For this reason, Cauthorn said he supports community colleges as an alternative to the higher cost of residence-based campuses such as MU.
Cauthorn recently met with the president of Moberly Area Community College and said one of his children decided to attend community college to save money. He said it worked out well and noted that he thinks it's an option others might consider.
"It won't work for everybody," he said. "But it might be a good starting point."
Cauthorn said staying at home is not a popular decision for recent high school graduates who want to experience the freedom of living away from their parents. Still, he said, attending community college cuts the cost of living.
Democratic candidate Kelly Schultz of Shaw said she is committed ensuring MU's resources remain intact this coming year.
Schultz said that because MU and University Hospital are the top employers of residents of the 21st District, it is important that the state support them. At a forum Wednesday night at the MU Student Center, Schultz also said it would be short-sighted to create jobs if the local workforce lacks the necessary education to compete for them.
Schultz said that when MU educates students, it is “educating the future of our economy.” She said she knows families, including hers, struggle with tuition costs, but she doesn't support tuition caps.
Schultz said tuition caps cause universities to recruit more students from out of state rather than in state because they will always have to pay more than the in-state cost. She wants MU to focus on educating students from Missouri.
Republican Paul Szopa said a good educational system is important to keeping Missouri competitive.
“The quality of the instruction is the number one priority,” Szopa said. “We want the best and brightest educators teaching our students.”
He said if there must be a tuition increase, he would like it on a small scale and would want to see accountable spending on schools' parts.
“I hate the thought of raising tuition, but if that’s what it has to be, it’ll have to be,” Szopa said.
Szopa said that in order to bring more funding into higher education, the state needs to “get people working and paying into tax revenue.” However, he also said he would make sure taxes aren’t increased, even if it meant budget cuts for higher education.
Incumbent Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said protecting higher education is important to keeping Missouri students’ education competitive with that of other states.
“That’s certainly a priority,” he said.
Webber wants to see the expansion and modernization of programs that give students more educational opportunities, such as Bright Flight and the A+ Scholarship Program.
He said he is also looking to protect academic freedom for students and professors. He believes professors should be able to carry out research without infringement or financial pressures from the state.
Webber is a law student at MU.
Incumbent Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and his challenger, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, R-Columbia, both believe in keeping funding for higher education at least at current levels. Kelly has said that one of the reasons he decided to run for the House seat in 2008 was the encouragement of friends on the MU faculty who were concerned about dramatic cuts for higher education in the state legislature.
"I sponsored the single biggest funding increase in the budget of the University of Missouri in the 20th century," Kelly said at the forum, referring to his previous 12-year run in the state legislature.
One of his plans to help funding is a bond issue, which would give state voters the option to pass a plan that would enact statewide capital improvements. Kelly said about $700 million would be allocated to higher education, and said one of his primary goals is to finance a new engineering building for MU.
Kelly sponsored a similar bill in the previous two legislative sessions. Although it received bipartisan support and was co-sponsored last year by the House majority leader, Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, it did not pass.
Nauser, who resumed her higher education and graduated from Columbia College in 2004, also stressed the importance of maintaining higher education funding during tough economic times for the state. She said increased educational opportunities and funding for research are critical for long-term economic development.
Nauser said government programs that are not succeeding need to face cuts, and she proposed reallocating their funds to finance higher education.
However, she disagreed with Kelly that government revenue needed to increase in order to maintain current levels of higher education funding. When asked at the forum which programs should be cut from the state budget, she mentioned the possibility of privatizing government programs such as child support enforcement.
Nauser said she is seeking to uphold the wishes of her constituents.
"They believe that taxes are high enough already, and I want to focus on providing core services like roads and education," she said.
While Kelly said it is not feasible to keep higher education funding intact without taxes to increase state revenue, both candidates believed that the success of public universities were integral to the state's future.