Senate Bill 389 may be keeping tuition costs down but it may also be limiting the quality of Missouri Western’s education and tying the hands of administration.
Gov. Jay Nixon has proposed cutting the budget for higher education for the second year in a row. This time, the proposal will reduce the state allocation by seven percent. Western Board of Governors may need to consider not only raising student tuition to meet the consumer price index, as allowed by SB 389, but may need to seek a higher increase to offset lost state appropriations.
In 2007, when Gov. Blunt signed this bill things were different. The economy was in better shape and some universities were raising their tuition nearly every year. The state legislature put an end to the out-of–control, rising cost of higher education by passing SB389.
The bill only allows tuition increases if the university’s tuition is below the state average and then allows only a raise that matches the consumer price index increase for the year. The problem is no one considered the possibility of the state cutting the appropriations to universities. After two years of cuts Western, along with other universities, has felt the squeeze from both ends and their budgets are in trouble.
The proof is the shrinking reserve bank account that Western has been living on during the past two years. When the bill was passed Western enjoyed $7.8 million in cash reserves. Since then the account has been drained to $4.7 million. The Board of Governors requires that four to six percent of the operating budget must be kept in reserves. “Considering our operating budget we need to keep a reserve of $2 million to meet the board’s requirement,” Vice President of Financial Planning and Administration Mel Klinkner said. “We have about two years before hitting the bottom of our minimum reserve limit.”
Several members of the administration team from Western went to Jefferson City to lay the groundwork for possible tuition increase approval and what President Robert Vartabedian has labeled “Equity”. Director of External Relations Beth Wheeler and Mel Klinkner accompanied the president on his visit to Jefferson City as they met with 12 legislators. Vartabedian also testified to the Missouri House Committee on Appropriations. “We went to tell Missouri Western’s Story,” Wheeler said.
The “equity” issue is two- fold according to Vartabedian. He recently wrote a column for the Griffon News which revealed that Western is the fastest growing state university in Missouri. Klinkner points out that we should not be too quick to give the credit to the Chief’s training camp.
“The growth began before the training camp. We are looking forward to more growth from that in the future.” Klinkner said. “We are growing because of our students, staff and the quality of education that we offer.”
The second “equity” issue is the fact, also pointed out by the president’s column, that “Western currently receives the lowest state appropriations on a per-student basis of any other public university in Missouri.”
“There is a group in Jefferson City made up of members of The Board of Higher Education that is looking at and working on the issue of equity,” Wheeler said. “They have met once to set up the committee.” Wheeler believes that they may come up with a new formula to address these issues.
“I hate doing it (raising tuition),” Klinkner said. As it stands now, Western is holding down the price of tuition. We are $584 per school year under the average for Missouri. Meanwhile the administration is enduring state appropriation cuts, continued growth in student population and rising mandatory cost such as utilities, retirement, maintenance and insurance. Western has added five buildings since SB 389 was passed and student population has increased 18 percent in the last three years.
“We are producing what the legislators want with our staffing numbers at 1999 levels. Our people are very efficient,” Klinkner said.
Senate bill 389 was first applied in fiscal year 2009. It affected higher education in some less dramatic ways. For example, the bill requires that the Joint Committee on Education meet a minimum of twice per year. It introduced the Missouri Teaching Fellows Program to assist teachers by paying limited amounts of their student loans if they agree to teach in non-accredited school districts. It also made institutions of higher education do some housekeeping type items. “We don’t have any problems complying with the bill, it’s just the tuition formula that doesn’t work,” Wheeler said. Klinkner agrees. He points out that the bill’s designers never took into account a zero increase of appropriations for 2010 and $2.7 million in cuts for 2011 and 2012 collectively, considering the seven percent proposed cut for 2012. Klinkner and Wheeler both said that Gary Nodler, the chief proponent and sponsor of the bill, stated that the bill was never designed to work with decreases in state appropriations.
Some universities’ students have elected to pay additional fees to help close the gap. Presently students at Missouri Southern State University and Northwest Missouri State University pay an additional $300 or more per year in voluntary fees. These fees do not affect SB 389’s formulas and is another income stream for those universities.
“I don’t like the idea of hidden fees,” Klinkner said. “I get calls from parents often who expected to pay the tuition and are surprised when they get their bill with all of the fees included.”
Vartabedian says he could live with these types of student elected fees if the student body votes to pay more tuition voluntarily to keep the quality of education at Western high.
“We have already proposed the idea of these types of fees to the Student Government Association,” Vartabedian said. “We are looking for their input.”The bill allows for a waiver that can be issued to allow universities to exceed the tuition increase limit. “We are going for the waiver.” Vartabedian said.