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Call a time out to assess higher education funding priorities

Call a time out to assess higher education funding priorities

On occasion we should all take time out to review what education on all levels means to our state and how we need to support these enterprises. Several ongoing controversies, including the MOHELA matter, have divided the public into several camps, spurring some of us to unhealthy levels of anger and bitterness. The threat of political trespassing on the management and autonomy of the University of Missouri now seems to be a very real threat. Let’s call “time-out” to see where we’ve been and what we want this institution to do for us in the future.

During this time out we should review the history, role, scope, current status, funding and interconnection of every one of Missouri’s state-supported colleges and universities. Our own hometown University of Missouri campus is where it all began in 1839, adopting a curriculum modeled on Europe’s great institutions and oriented toward the liberal arts, the professions, research and graduate education.

Somewhat later, a group of state normal schools was chartered to train teachers to staff the state’s burgeoning public school system. Reconstituted as universities, the mélange of Missouri higher education institutions has been supplemented with another layer of newer regional institutions and a string of junior colleges.

A given in all this historically was the state’s generous subsidization of the teachers’ colleges and the University of Missouri in order to provide low-cost education beyond high school to anyone deemed qualified. At first there was no tuition, and other fees were modest. In the present financial snapshot, the state’s financial role has been one of steady retreat in the realm of national cost escalation, thus forcing each institution to charge a dizzyingly increased rate per credit hour while hiking fees for specialized programs in the professional degree programs.

One thing that’s been discovered is the importance of each institution as a machine for job creation, regional economic development and stability. Each university has, in effect, become an educational “factory,” replacing the workshops where skilled labor used to manufacture tangible goods. Those factories are gone forever, but there always seems to be a need for another “plant” dedicated to higher education.

The Columbia Daily Tribune recently reported that 824 University of Missouri faculty, staff and system employees who live in this area—members of the “$100K-Plus Club”—have a combined total income of $124,527,418 per year. This figure represents more than 5 percent of Boone County’s total retail sales in a given year, although 824 represents less than one-tenth of the university’s overall employees headquartered here.

We should all cheer this number because it represents a significant part of the economic backbone of the Columbia-Boone County Metropolitan Area. This $124 million circulated in the milieu of the region’s economy has nothing but the most positive salutary effect on every economic aspect of the area and contributes to the lifestyle we have come to enjoy and expect.

In times of recession and job losses in some areas and only modest advancement otherwise, having even a junior college in your town brings with it both jobs and concomitant economic stability. The economies of not just Columbia but other regional centers, ranging from Kirksville and Springfield to Joplin and Cape Girardeau, have thrived in good measure from the stable base of the educational institutions located there.

Regretfully, the state has come to assume a declining responsibility to fund not just the “$100K-Plus Club” but also the overall cost of Missouri’s higher education system. Now I fear that the legislative backlash from the revelations in this article may spur calls for further tampering with the academic independence of the University of Missouri and how it’s funded by the state.

For the sake of the university’s future, take “time out” please to step back a few paces from this dangerous precipice and consider what this noble institution is all about. We could be on the threshold of making some dangerous moves that would harm the integrity of this great state university that the citizens of Missouri have spent the last 168 years developing. Legislative tampering with the University of Missouri has no place in a state with the proud record of developing the first land grant institution west of the Mississippi River.

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