Proposed funding increases face hurdles

If passed, Governor Nixon’s proposed tuition freeze and funding increase would mark a departure from recent trends in state support for higher education.

On Sept. 21, Gov. Jay Nixon announced a proposal for a freeze on undergraduate tuition at the state’s public two- and four-year institutions for the 2016-17 school year. According to a news release from the governor’s office, this marks the fourth tuition freeze proposed by Nixon since 2009.

In addition to the proposed tuition freeze, Nixon also announced a proposal for an additional $55.7 million increase in higher education funding as part of his 2017 budget. If passed, the funding increase would bring total higher education funding to $985 million, a record high. $9.2 million of that will be earmarked toward funding for science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Michael O’Brien, College of Arts and Science dean, expressed skepticism over passing of the proposal, noting its contingency upon the approval of the state general assembly and the University System Board of Curators.

“The general assembly decides it,” O’Brien said. “It’s a moot point until then.”

However, O’Brien did note the importance of funding increases on the university’s operations due to legislative constraints, mainly Missouri Senate Bill 389, a bill approved in 2007 that caps tuition increases at state universities with the national Consumer Price Index. SB 389 “makes (MU) very dependent on state support,” O’Brien said.

SB 389 has long been a source of controversy at MU. The Missouri Students Association passed a resolution in 2007 opposing the bill, saying, “SB 389 places certain restrictions on the research that faculty, staff, students and administration of the University of Missouri of Columbia can engage in,” and that “such restrictions severely limit the ability of the University to fulfill its mission as the state’s major land-grant research institution.”

In addition, according to a 2009 report by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education on the state of higher education funding, “annual state funding increases are critical to maintaining current levels of quality and service in Missouri public postsecondary education.”

The governor’s proposed funding increase comes amid already low higher education funding. According to data from the College Board website, in 2014 Missouri ranked 43rd among all states in terms of per capita spending on higher education, enough to receive a “D” grade from U.S. News and World Report.

For O’Brien, the low amount of recent funding is largely a result of the fallout from the 2008-09 recession: a worse economy causes people to spend less, meaning less tax revenue, which ultimately results in less government funding to distribute to programs like education.

“We haven’t seen growth years recently,” O’Brien said. “Times have been lean.”

However, according to the CBHE, low amounts of funding for higher education are not a recent anomaly, but a larger, more worrying trend.

According to the report, from 2001 to 2008, not only did per capita spending on students decrease from $184 to $159.05, but the appropriations base for funding was also decreased, causing nominal funding to remain “stagnant.”

The report goes on to say, “Extraordinary withholdings, annual 3 percent withholdings, and below inflation increases in state support” have “compromised the University’s ability to recruit and retain top faculty.”

This observation still seems to hold true six years later: In a survey of 34 member institutions by the Association of American Universities, MU ranked 33rd.

Despite these trends, O’Brien remained optimistic about the proposal, noting the many STEM-related College of Arts and Science programs could utilize the increased funds, such as renovations to undergraduate biology and physics labs, as well as increased graduate student housing. However, O’Brien made sure to stress the uncertainty surrounding funding until approval by the university board of curators and the general assembly.

“Talk to me after the December meetings...then we’ll have more answers.” O’Brien said.

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