Future of higher education wavers amidst student concerns, new budget plan

The Missouri House finalized a budget for fiscal year 2019 after weeks of negotiations and debate.

Higher education cuts in fiscal year 2019’s budget may not be as severe as previously expected. On Jan. 22, Gov. Eric Greitens proposed cutting $68 million from higher education funding. However, the first draft of a different 2019 budget was finalized last week by the Missouri House of Representatives Budget Committee.

Under the governor’s proposal, higher education institutions would have had to “cut administrative bloat, eliminate duplicative, low-impact programs, step up cost-saving collaborations, and improve operational efficiencies,” according to the Jan. 22 budget summary.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education couldn’t provide comment on the the specific effects of the cuts. The department manages a number of programs impacting post-secondary students, including Missouri’s state financial aid programs, but has little say in how funding will impact particular universities and higher education initiatives.

“The budget requests for the colleges and university are part of our higher education budget, but each college has a board of governors or curators who approve their own budgets,” said Liz Coleman, MDHE communications director. “[The boards] are the ones that make the decisions at specific colleges and universities. As far as impacts on students, that would be determined at the college or university level as well.”

Still, the governor’s proposal came as a source of concern for many MU students, especially in conjunction with a task force assessment released in late January. The report recommends the inactivation of degree programs across 13 disciplines, including the romance languages, chemical engineering and applied mathematics.

In response, MU Socialists led the formation of the Stop the Cuts Coalition, an organization that seeks to spread awareness and take action against higher education cuts and tuition hikes. Members discussed the governor’s proposal on Feb. 12 at the organization’s first meeting.

“It’s crazy that we’re cutting [higher education] engineering programs,” said junior Victoria Vitale of MU Socialists. “I mean, any programs really. We’re going to be losing students, and MU isn't going to be a flagship university of research universities, which is what we advertise ourselves to be. It’s just going to decrease enrollment more.”

Vitale said budget cuts to higher education would decrease untenured faculty and force tenured professors to focus more on undergraduate teaching instead of facilitating research, which is “really not the best use of our faculty.” As a result, enrollment numbers would also significantly decrease, as prospective undergraduates and graduate students in those initiatives would need to find programs at other universities.

“People tend to start going to their undergrad where they want to get their Ph.D.s,” Vitale said. “I mean, some people change, but I plan on getting my master’s here because I have professors I know I’ll be able to get TA positions [with]. I have connections, and people want to get their undergrad somewhere they can get connections. That’s going to continue to deteriorate MU.”

In the House’s budget draft, the $68 million in cuts to higher education previously recommended by the governor will not be executed. However, Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick said he would allocate $30 million of the $68 million to scholarships if public universities decide to raise in-state tuition, according to the Associated Press. Stop the Cuts Coalition also hopes to address the potential increases in tuition.

“It’s in the Missouri constitution that tuition for public universities and colleges can’t rise faster than inflation, so this bill would allow tuition to raise up to 10 percent faster than inflation, and colleges want this,” Vitale said. “Our board of curators is lobbying for this bill. Why? Because they need to make up the money they’re losing in their funding. This budget is being balanced on the backs of students.”

Recently, MU students and faculty have had firsthand experience with budget cuts on campus. After revelations of a $60 million budget hole and subsequent faculty cuts, the approved draft’s lack of a $68 million cut to Missouri higher education could be a comfort to some.

“We know there is a long process to be completed in the legislature related to our budget,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said. “However, we’re very appreciative of the work that the legislators have done over the last several weeks to help maintain our budget for the following year. We’ll be working with them in the coming weeks to provide any information they need to make a final decision about our budget.”

Further details on the 2019 budget will emerge as the appropriations process continues. Coleman said the General Assembly will likely go through the process for the next couple of months, though a consensus needs to be reached before the legislative session ends in May.

Edited by Stephi Smith | ssmith@themaneater.com

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