JEFFERSON CITY — State lawmakers met twice in the last week to hear college and university presidents state their cases for additional funding. Themes of dilapidated infrastructure and slowing growth dominated the conversations about future funding.
Representatives for the universities and colleges almost universally told the House Subcommittee on Education Appropriations that funding for higher education has dropped dramatically in the last two decades. The president of Northwest Missouri State, John Jasinski, noted that in the year 2000 the institution received 70% of its funding from the state and 30% from tuition. He said that the ratio has reversed, with the state only funding 30% of the college’s expenditures.
Schools also noted that appropriations have stopped receiving increases that correspond with inflation, meaning that even when schools receive the same amount of money, it has less buying power. Clif Smart, president of Missouri State University, told the committee that it had not received an increase accounting for inflation in four years.
Representatives of all 13 four-year higher education institutions in the state, as well as a representative for the 12 public community colleges, filed in front of the committee school by school to explain their recent performance based on tuition cost, enrollment, retention rates, support for underrepresented populations and student performance. They also went out of their way to explain all the ways they had cut costs in recent years or were working with other education or community institutions to create opportunities.
The reality is there is only so much money to go around, and each school had only about 20 minutes to state their case for more and answer questions.
Missouri is 46th in higher education spending per capita as of 2019, according to a PolitiFact Missouri article, and has actively cut spending since its peak, prior to the Great Recession.
“In general, Missouri underfunds higher education,” said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, a member of the committee.
Cost-cutting measures were a significant part of the cases they made, and several school representatives, including UM System President Mun Choi, touted faculty and program cuts to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal responsibility.
In addition to existing problems, higher education institutions face the looming threat of dropping enrollment over the course of the upcoming decade. With high school graduating classes expected to shrink significantly over the 2020s, schools attempted to present their vision for maintaining attendance.
Aging infrastructure also continued to be a topic of conversation, with most schools stating they had millions of dollars worth of repair and update work needing urgent attention. Carlos Vargas of Southeast Missouri State explained that more than two miles of utility tunnels built in the early 1900s were becoming a threat to the college’s water system and that while only some of the repairs were urgent, the entire replacement project would ultimately cost more than $35 million.
Choi finished the procession of speakers by touting a rebound in enrollment from the drop in 2016, as well as a tuition that has remained relatively stable over the last decade as the cost for college continues to rise nationally.
Choi requested nearly $450 million from the state. That number includes core funding of $416 million (the same at 2020) plus inflation, $10 million for the NextGen Precision Health Institute project, $9 million for MoExcels programs and $8.3 million for deferred maintenance.
Choi made clear that a key funding priority is the NextGen project, a medical research facility MU recently began building. He made significantly fewer requests of the committee than other presidents; MU frequently receives more money than the other four-year institutions combined.
“Through your investments we will continue to create discoveries that will help to save and improve lives in Missouri,” Choi told the committee.
Like the other presidents, Choi touted the economic stimulus of the University of Missouri System, claiming the state’s investment was leading to $5.4 billion in economic impact.
Last year, the state allocated $1.3 billion for higher education and workforce development. The University of Missouri System was given $416 million of that, with the next highest four-year institution, Missouri State University, receiving $94 million.
The Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development stressed the need to allocate funds based on the performance of schools, as well as the need to focus on funding student financial aid.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.