It might seem off at first that students support a bill to raise tuition caps here in Missouri. As student advocates, college affordability, student debt, and educational accessibility are some of our top priorities and concerns. In normal times, no one would have any difficulty imagining students advocating against allowing tuition increases.
These, however, are not normal times.
In a year where unemployment approaches record lows and the Missouri economy is healthy enough that almost anyone who wants a job can get one, Governor Greitens has proposed a 10% cut to higher education appropriations This comes on top of cuts and withholdings from the previous fiscal year (FY18) that summed to nearly 10%. Now, the question becomes when- not if- Missouri faces another economic downturn, what will proposed cuts to higher education appropriations look like then? What level of academic excellence can we expect our public institutions to provide to Missourians then?
Without significant changes to budget prioritization and state revenue flows, our public colleges and universities, and the students they serve, can expect a continual decline in support from the state. This monetary squeeze has been absorbed in the past by expenditure reductions across campuses, many of which were perhaps necessary, but many more of which were painful—laying off quality advisors, instructors, and student advocates to the detriment of student success. That excess is now gone and the universities are operating at bare bones.
With state funds declining, the only other major source of funds for universities is tuition. Unfortunately, Missouri universities’ only pressure release valve is impeded by existing tuition caps that place our state institutions in financially unworkable positions. A less stringent tuition cap would allow our universities to address funding shortfalls from the state and continue to provide the world-class education that makes us proud of our institutions.
As part of our continued efforts to make college more affordable, we have had the bill successfully amendment to include under the definition of tuition course and supplementary fees. While tuition in the state has increased, on average, 1.6% a year (just below the rate of inflation), supplementary course fees in the state have increased 138% between 2009 and 2015. These impose a hidden burden on students, particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college. We believe this amendment will make this bill more transparent and close the door to these unlimited increases.
This adjustment to the tuition cap will give our public universities some breathing room to address declining state investment while maintaining the level of excellence taxpayers and students have come to expect. However, without a major change in the value the State of Missouri places in its institutions of higher education, a simple adjustment to tuition caps will not save our universities, our workforce, our economy, or our state, from precipitous decline.