COLUMBIA — Years of steady enrollment growth and declining state support has University of Missouri leaders publicly discussing limits on the number of students who attend the system's four campuses, a notion that had previously only been whispered in private.
There are no immediate plans to cap enrollment. But acting system president Steve Owens and university curators say the move deserves serious consideration. Their stance comes after Gov. Jay Nixon recently cut the university system's budget by an extra $4.4 million in response to a 5.5 percent UM tuition hike that exceeded the state's suggested boost.
The university system's 8.1 percent budget cut in fiscal year 2012 is greater than the reductions at other public universities that didn't raise tuition and fees more than 1.5 percent. That's the limit set by a 3-year-old law that caps tuition increases at the consumer price index inflation rate, barring special exceptions.
"We cannot continue to take more and more students while state support declines, and there are legal and practical restrictions on our ability to increase tuition," Owens said. "Without adequate resources, the quality of our academic and research programs is at risk."
Enrollment at MU has increased nearly every year over the past decade, with more than 32,000 students enrolled at the start of the fall 2010 semester. That number is expected to increase by another 1,000 when students return in August, said Ann Korschgen, vice provost for enrollment management.
The enrollment surge has been met with an accompanying drop in state funding. The university system counts on state support for 36 percent of its current revenues, said Nikki Krawitz, vice president for finance and administration. Little more than a decade ago, that figure was 64 percent.
Tuition and student fees, meanwhile, account for nearly half of the university's revenue, compared to 27 percent in 1990.
Limiting the number of students would represent a fundamental philosophical shift at MU, a land-grant university founded in 1839 to broaden access to higher education across the state. It's a move that school leaders loathe to make, but one they say may soon be necessary.
"Look, nobody wants to do any of these things," curator Warren Erdman said at the board's June meeting. He was referring to an enrollment cap and other unpopular steps briefly considered to deal with the state's latest budget cut, including financial aid reductions or student fee surcharges. "But we're pushing capacity ... Pretty soon, it starts getting kind of ugly."
Owens said that enrollment caps are not a "radical" idea, noting their adoption or consideration in a number of other states, most prominently in California, where the highly selective University of California system reduced its freshmen enrollment of state residents by 6 percent, or about 2,300 students, starting in the 2009-10 academic year. Its flagship campus in Berkeley simultaneously increased admissions of out-of-state students, who pay three times more in tuition.
That approach could prove appealing in Columbia, which has seen sharp increases in the number of students from Illinois.
The decision on whether to pursue an enrollment cap will likely rest with Owens' successor as the school's permanent president. A search is under way to replace former president Gary Forsee, who resigned in January to care for his ill wife. Owens, the system's general counsel, is not interested in the full-time job.
Such a move would also have to be approved by the nine curators, who are political appointees nominated by the governor. While their political affiliations are divided, all but one of the curators were nominated by Nixon, a Democrat. The governor's office declined to comment on a potential enrollment cap.
State lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, suggest the four-campus university system may be at the juncture where capping enrollment is necessary.
"I certainly don't blame the curators for looking at all options, given the financial circumstances," said state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican and member of the Senate Education Committee. "Something has to give."
State Rep. Chris Kelly, a Democrat, called the university's more transparent stance "very real and very late."
"To not cap enrollment means you're going to hide the truth from the people of Missouri," he said. "The university cannot continue to deliver a quality education to more people with ever-shrinking resources. That's the reality."
At MU, students who fulfill the high school course requirement and earn a composite ACT score of 24 or higher or a combined SAT critical reading and math score of 1090 or higher are generally guaranteed admission. Those who score lower on standardized entrance exams can still gain admission depending on their high school class rank.
Owens acknowledged that "some students who would otherwise be admitted to the university would not be. That's one of several downsides to enrollment caps." He also said the discussion, at least, won't wait for the next president.
"It's not an option that I favor or, as far as I know, anyone favors. But it's something we have to look at."