JEFFERSON CITY — Once again, Missouri state lawmakers are proposing steep budget cuts for higher education. If you think that sounds like nothing new, you'd be right.
This year's proposed budget cuts to the University of Missouri System are only the latest in a trend of decreasing state funding to higher education. It's happening nationwide, and in Missouri, it began more than two decades ago.
Gov. Eric Greitens released his proposed budget on Feb. 2, suggesting a $159 million cut to higher education from what the legislature appropriated last year. That was the single largest cut of any state department in the proposed budget.
About $40 million of that cut would target the operating budgets of the UM System, which includes four campuses: MU, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
"Higher ed is unlike any other state budgeting area," said Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. "In bad times, it's one of the first areas on the chopping block."
State support has not kept pace with inflation. From 1990-2016, inflation-adjusted appropriations showed an overall trend of decreasing state funding. In 2016, the legislature appropriated 15* percent less to the UM System than it did 27 years ago, once the amounts are adjusted for inflation. There were periods over the past couple of decades when funding increased in the short term, but overall the downward trend has been consistent.
But even without taking inflation into account, funding has dropped in the past 17 years.
The UM System's state funding was at its peak between 2000 and 2010. In 2010, the legislature appropriated about $476 million to the UM System ($524 million adjusted for inflation). Last year, $434 million was appropriated, a 9 percent reduction in nominal dollars, and 17 percent when adjusted for inflation.
Chris Kelly, a former state representative from Columbia, said he noticed the decreasing trend when he was a legislator. Kelly, a Democrat, was a House member from 2009-2014.
"They are destroying MU one little slice at a time," he said. "It's a direct attack on the institution."
Moreover, the system hasn't been getting all of its yearly appropriations. Each year, the legislature appropriates money based on projections. When those projections fall short, the university doesn't get all the appropriated money.
In January, Greitens announced he would withhold money from this year's appropriations because of a state revenue gap. He mandated that the UM System cut $38 million from this year's operating budget by June.
Last year, the UM System received $416 million from the legislature after all withholdings, $18 million less than the amount originally appropriated.
That figure puts Greitens' proposed cut for 2018 in perspective. Compared to the amount appropriated for this year, it's a $40 million reduction, and $8 million less than the actual amount received in 2016.
That would mean UM would be starting from a much lower baseline in 2018, and it's possible that funds would be cut as the year goes on.
The proposed budget now moves to legislative committees for debate. Legislators will likely amend the governor's suggestions, and several lawmakers have pledged to try to restore money to higher education.
Why is higher education taking the hit?
Experts say state lawmakers have cut higher education throughout the country because it's an easy target.
Delaney said legislatures consider funding for higher education discretionary, or non-mandatory.
Lawmakers can cut funds to universities knowing that they have alternative revenue streams, she said. That's not the case for other areas of the budget, she said, citing Medicaid and pension payments.
Universities can rely on students and donors for some of their funding, unlike other government programs that depend solely on state money, Delaney said.
Rep. Dean Dohrman, R-La Monte, said lagging state revenues haven't kept up with the rising cost of higher education.
"We're outgrowing the resources we have," said Dohrman, the vice chair of the House Committee on Higher Education. "Missouri lives on the money we get each year. It's a difficult balancing act."
"It's an easy place to cut funds from, because it can always be made up through tuition hikes and fee hikes," said Rep. Jason Chipman, R-Steelville, also a member of the Higher Education Committee. "To me, it's an easy scapegoat for funding cuts. It's just easier to do because you're not cutting from a population that really needs the help."
Chipman said the legislature had no other choice than to propose education cuts.
"Given our current budget situation and with the cuts that have been made, everybody is feeling the pinch, which probably makes it as fair as it possibly can be," he said.
Missouri colleges cannot raise tuition above the rate of inflation, according to Missouri statutes. That requirement was adopted in 2008, after the General Assembly approved the Higher Education Student Funding Act. In 2016, the rate was 2.1 percent.
Universities can get a waiver to raise tuition above the rate of inflation through the Department of Higher Education. The cap has only been waived once — in 2012. That year, 11 of 14 higher education institutions got a waiver following state cuts, according to an August statement from State Auditor Nicole Galloway.
The act does not prevent universities from raising student fees. Fees have risen 138 percent in the past six years, Galloway's statement said.
In 2008, tuition and fees covered 29 percent of the system's budget; in 2016 it paid for more than half, according to The Associated Press.
UM System Board of Curators said tuition increases are a possibility to mitigate the effects of Greitens' proposed budget cuts.
It's happening in every state
Rick Althaus, a professor of political science at Southeast Missouri State University, pointed out that enrollment at Missouri universities has risen as state funding has declined.
That has led to a precipitous drop in state dollars per student.
He ascribed the decline to a shift in the way lawmakers view the value of a college degree.
"Decades ago, we Missourians were more likely to view a college education as a public good — something that benefits the entire society," Althaus said.
Now, lawmakers see higher education as a private good, he said, and they are shifting the burden of paying for college to students and their families.
Some decry this shift.
"I think if higher education is cut and our tuition increases, I think less folks would think about attending universities here in our state," said Rep, Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, a member of the Higher Education Committee. "So, overall, that would affect our economy because we wouldn't have those young people coming in."
The trend is evident in nearly every state. Rising health care costs and other programs have squeezed state budgets, and stagnation or decreases in tax revenues have limited yearly revenues, Delaney said.
"I don’t really see things changing structurally within state budgets in the short term."
Unless state revenue sources change, higher education funding will continue to decline.
"I can't imagine what would turn it around," Althaus said. "I don't know where the spigot of money would be for someone to turn on."
Missourian reporter Isabella Alves contributed to this report.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.