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Lobbyist Money Help  

Capping Higher Education Not to Last Long

March 08, 2006
By: David Castillo
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -

The House sponsor of legislation to freeze funding for Missouri colleges says he intends only a short-term cap in order to fully fund the state's scholarship program.

Once scholarship programs are 75 percent funded, the cap would be lifted, said House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St.Charles.

"Funding wouldn't be capped forever," Bearden said. "We think that this funding level can be reached in three to five years."

Bearden noted that the cap would not have an immediate effect on the University of Missouri's budget -- since it's $20 million above the current level of state funding and nearly $10 million above the governor's recommendation for the next fiscal year.

The cap is based on the University's 2001 fiscal year appropriation -- a high-water mark for university funding that began a decline during the succeeding years of tight state budgets.

The University of Missouri System was appropriated at about $429 million in fiscal year 2001. The recommended budget this fiscal year was about $409 million.

The legislation would cap state spending on the operating costs of Missouri colleges and universities with other educational state funds paying for state scholarship programs.

At their current funding levels, only one quarter of Missouri students eligible for the state's two need-based scholarships can get them. The bill also creates a new merit-based scholarship program called Access Missouri.

This situation, however, has university administrators worried about what passage of this bill will really mean for students.

Nikki Krawitz, UM System Vice President for Finance and Administration, is concerned that the bill would shift money away from MU and the other UM System campuses to community colleges and private institutions. Krawitz also says that the bill would implement devastating shortfalls.

"This bill would put tremendous pressure on tuition," Krawitz said. "Somebody has to pick up the cost increases."

Bearden says that the shortfalls can be made up by attracting students who have received more scholarships.

"The UM System and MU are big users of the Gallagher and Guarantee scholarships," Bearden said. "MU receives the most money from these scholarships and under the bill, they'll continue to receive the lion's share as scholarship levels increase."

The problem with this, says Krawitz, is that the scholarship increases for the Access Missouri program only fund a maximum of $1,000 for one year of a student's education, making it more attractive for students who go to community colleges. She says that UM tries to provide a four-year commitment and attempts to adjust support according to what the program is and what school the student is attending.

"These scholarships do not account for cost structures," Krawitz said. "It treats all schools the same in terms of support."

Columbia legislator Rep. Jeff Harris says the bill is bad news for the community and for public universities.

"This bill really hurts and puts a squeeze on the economy and businesses that depend on it for livelihood," Harris said. "We don't do a good enough job of funding public education right now."

Other key aspects of Bearden's bill are the performance standards that colleges and universities would be required to meet to receive additional operating costs. The bill requires five standards, which the Coordinating Board for Higher Education would have to approve, and would be made up of two statewide standards, two institution specific standards and one carnegie standard.

"We already have standards and we are not uncomfortable with those requirements," Krawitz said. "But, scholarships and operational costs are separate issues."

If the House approves Bearden's bill, it must still face approval from the Senate.