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Audit criticizes state colleges for excessive spending

May 01, 2003
By: Heather J. Carlson
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's colleges and universities need to do a better job cutting costs to help curb double-digit tuition increases, according to an audit released Thursday by State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

Higher education faces this criticism while bracing for the possibility of multi-million dollar budget cuts.

The audit states that average tuition levels at Missouri schools have increased by 37 percent over the past five years -- well above inflation and personal income increases. The University of Missouri also ranks as one of the most expensive schools in the Big 12 Conference.

The audit comes at the same time that the Senate's democratic floor leader, Columbia Sen. Ken Jacob, has blamed rising tuition on budget cuts.

Although cuts in state funding play a significant role in driving up tuition costs, Director of Performance Auditor Kirk Boyer said it's clear that excessive spending is also a problem for state schools. Right now he said there is no comprehensive statewide system for tracking and analyzing school expenditures.

And it's crucial-- especially in tough economic times -- that schools have that information, Boyer said.

"At some point out there as tuition increases, you pass the point of being affordable and possibly students are starting to get sticker shock," Boyer said.

The job of monitoring college spending falls to the Department of Higher Education, according to the audit.

But Commissioner of Higher Education Quentin Wilson said it's tough for his department to analyze college spending when his staff is already stretched thin. Right now he said two people are responsible for keeping track of the 2,300 higher education programs statewide.

Nonetheless, he said he agrees that his department should do a better job collecting the data, but then it's the individual institutions responsibility to act on it.

"We're going to help institutions get the data they need to do their own self-assessments," Wilson said.

UM officials say they have already begun scrutinizing the cost-effectiveness of academic programs.

Steve Lehmkuhle, UM vice president for academic affairs, said his office is examining the cost and tuition revenue generated by each academic department to determine what programs are cost-effective and which aren't. Once all the data has been gathered by the end of this month, university chancellors will decide which programs should stay and which should go.

The UM System was spared from criticism by the state auditor when it came to recent expenditures.

"Overall I was pleased with the tone of the audit and I think it recognized that the University of Missouri has properly managed and is in the process of properly managing its academic costs," Lehmkuhle said.

The audit found that all of Missouri's four-year colleges --except UM -- had total expenditures exceeding the rate of inflation. The average spending increase among those schools over the past five years was 23 percent versus the 15 percent inflation rate as measured by the Higher Education Price Index. UM's spending rose 13 percent over the past five years.

Regional colleges were also criticized for growing administrative costs running as high as a 71 percent increase over five years for Missouri Southern State College.

Ultimately, Lehmkuhle said cost-efficiency efforts will only go so far in keeping tuition rates low. The biggest factor, he said, is budget cuts.

He added that additional funding cuts would "continue to bring pressure to bear on the tuition levels."