Candidates agree: Higher education lacks funding

Some support MOHELA sale for higher education funding; others say money will not go toward its intended use.
Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:19 a.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008

If there’s one thing every candidate for an area seat in the Missouri House of Representatives agrees on, it’s that the state’s public colleges and universities need more money.

Both Republican and Democratic candidates in the 9th, 21st, 23rd and 24th districts — all of which include parts of Boone County — say they want to find a way to boost state funding for higher education.

The issue is a top priority for 24th District State Rep. Ed Robb, a Republican seeking a second term, and for his opponent, Democrat Jim Ritter. Both have deep roots in education policy. Robb spent 30 years working at MU as an economics professor and as director of three research centers, where he studied education and processed millions of dollars in grants and contracts. And while Ritter spent most of his career in primary and secondary education, he served for four years as the dean of students for Truman State University.

“The most important function of the state is to educate our young people, with health care coming in a close second,” Ritter said, arguing that both higher education and K-12 schools need more money.

Robb’s campaign is emphasizing the needs of colleges and universities.

“We need to spend more money on higher education,” Robb said. “It’s been the ugly stepchild of the state budgetary process for the past two years. There is only so much money to go around, but if I could make improvements to a select program, I would choose higher education.”

Diminishing state funding has been a primary cause of rising tuition rates the past few years. MU has the highest tuition among public universities in the Big 12.

That’s why Robb and Ritter agree the state must increase direct funding to colleges and universities. Last year, the legislature increased higher education funding by 2 percent, an amount that satisfies neither candidate.

“We can’t rejoice over a 2 percent increase,” Ritter said.

Robb said he wants to boost higher education funding by 8 percent to 10 percent in the next two years. Ritter said he was unwilling to be specific until he’s taken a look at the entire state budget.

In the Ninth District, Democrat Paul Quinn has no detailed plan for how to increase funding but said, “our responsibility as a state is to look at higher education and how to fund it more.”

Quinn’s opponent, Republican Kathyrne Harper, agrees public colleges and universities need more state money and said the way to make it available is to better manage the budget and remove inefficiencies in state government.

Steve Hobbs, the Republican incumbent in the 21st District, who’s facing a challenge from Democrat Skip Elkin, said he’s proud of the 2 percent funding increase the legislature approved last session.

“That was the best we could do,” Hobbs said. “We want to do better. We have lots of needs, but we also need a balanced budget.”

Aside from increasing direct funding for higher education, several of the candidates are offering ideas for how to make college more affordable.

Both Ritter and Robb said the state should put more money into scholarships. There is a particular need for more need-based scholarships, Robb said, but he also wants to expand the Missouri Bright Flight program. Robb has sponsored legislation to double the amount of individual Bright Flight scholarships from $2,000 per year to $4,000. While his bill didn’t pass, Bright Flight did receive a 10 percent increase. Robb said he’ll continue to fight for the larger increase in a second term.

Ritter said that, contrary to the state’s current policy, he does not think public money should be used to support students who attend private universities.

In the 23rd District, Democratic incumbent Jeff Harris wants to make college more affordable by offering a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction to those who pay for public higher education.

“It gives parents a much needed tax break on the cost of public college,” he said.

Republican Patrick Crabtree, who’s running against Harris, said the real key to supporting higher education is the sale of $350 million in assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, an idea championed by Gov. Matt Blunt. The sale is subject to legislative approval in 2007. As advertised, it would not only generate money for numerous capital improvements but also would generate $25 million for new need-based scholarships, or about 10,000 scholarships a year. Crabtree said he’d like to see even more scholarship money.

Hobbs, of the 21st District, favors the sale, saying the new money for scholarships will help balance the cost and relieve some of the burden on students.

Elkin, however, remains a bit skeptical. He worries that the sale will get tied up in court and that the assets won’t be distributed as intended. “There are good benefits if it’s done right,” he said.

Quinn and Harper, the 9th District candidates, disagree on the sale. Harper supports it, as long as all the money is spent on higher-education projects. Quinn opposes it.

“I believe that we need buildings, but the most important part is being educated and subsidizing loans and (keeping) the money where it’s intended,” he said.

Both Ritter and Robb strongly support the sale, citing not only the scholarships but also the jobs and the millions of dollars it would bring to MU and its medical school.

While Ritter was hesitant early on, he now supports the sale of MOHELA assets after being assured it will not drive up the interest rates on student loans.

“I would strongly support the governor’s recommendation on MOHELA and the allocation of the funds, which will bring $94 million to the University of Missouri and be a tremendous asset to this university, to the medical school, to our community and to the state,” Ritter said.

Robb put it plainly. The sale, he said, “would have the single largest economic impact on this city and the University of Missouri since it moved to Columbia in the first place.”

Missourian reporters Kate Cerve,

Elizabeth Kusta, Charles Berman and Matthew Haag contributed to this report.

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