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Legislation would expand doctoral programs beyond University of Missouri

Senate bill proposes top degrees from other public universities

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A bill proposed by Missouri Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, would allow more public universities to offer doctoral programs.

Senate Bill 749 proposes to repeal a state law that names the University of Missouri the exclusive grantor of research doctorates and certain professional degrees, including dentistry, law, medicine, optometry, pharmacy and veterinary medicine.

The bill also would eliminate a provision limiting chiropractic and osteopathic medicine and engineering degrees to Mizzou alone.

As a result, public institutions like Missouri State University would be able to expand its offerings of doctoral and professional degree programs. The measure would apply to all 13 of the state’s public four-year universities.

Programs would have to be approved by the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education, Hough said.

“It’s a big state, and a lot of folks aren’t close to a University of Missouri campus,” Hough said. “This would just open up those programs.”

As an example, passage of the bill would mean that a student in the Missouri Bootheel would have easier access to an advanced degree in engineering.

“It’s giving students in that area the option to utilize a program they may not have had access to,” he said.

Hough said the intention of his legislation is not to grab programs from Mizzou, though he noted MU has offered the most concerted opposition to the measure.

“There’s still a process for the coordinating board to approve these programs and give access to more students,” he said.

The measure would help with workforce development in the state, Hough said, though he acknowledged that most people envision rank-and-file workers instead of doctors when they think about Missouri’s workforce needs.

“Any time that we can add educational opportunities for our workforce, it absolutely adds more workers to specific fields, and that’s good for everyone,” Hough said. “We’re building up that world-class workforce for the future.”

Hough said he proposed the bill at the suggestion of Missourians Improving Higher Education, an advocacy organization founded by Springfield attorney Thomas Strong.

“They brought this to me last year and we started meeting in the interim and talking about it,” Hough said. “It’s kind of common-sense legislation that broadens the scope of allowing degrees to be offered in different institutions, and that’s better for more students and better for the economy.”

Missouri State University President Clif Smart, who is preparing to retire from his role, told Springfield Business Journal via email that MSU has not taken a position on the legislation.

“That will be an issue for my successor, I suspect,” he said.

Losing talent
Strong, who testified before the Senate Select Committee on Empowering Missouri Parents and Children on Feb. 21, said Missouri is losing students who go to other states for their degrees and remain there to practice their profession.

“Common sense tells us this is a good bill to repeal this monopolistic law that is now in existence in Missouri,” he said in an interview.

He added, “Missouri is the only state in the union where only the flagship university can offer an engineering degree. It’s the only state that is so restrictive on offering Ph.D. degrees. No tax-supported university can offer Ph.D. degrees except MU, and it offers them on all four of its campuses. This makes no sense.”

Strong said many students leave the state to pursue graduate education elsewhere.

“When that happens, we lose the tuition they’re paying in another state,” he said. “When they don’t return, we’re losing their brainpower, talent, energy and the goods and services they and their employees would have brought back to Missouri. We’re losing the taxes they would have paid here. It’s a significant loss.”

Strong noted that for students living in the Bootheel, the University of Mississippi is closer to home than Columbia.

He added the bill is not an anti-MU bill.

“I’m a proud graduate of the MU law school,” he said. “There’s a room in the law school with my name on it because of a generous donation I made. But this law will not hurt MU in any way. It will always be able to offer Ph.D. degrees on all four of its campuses.”

Unlike the state’s undergraduate student population, graduate students are small in number. Data on MU’s Graduate School website shows 1,777 applicants for doctoral and first-professional programs going into the fall 2023 semester. Of these, 496 were admitted. Financial aid office figures show the cost of graduate tuition and fees ranges $9,000-$18,000 per year – some of which would potentially be diverted with competition from programs in other state schools.

Strong’s organization is also backing two House bills in the current legislative session, HB 1497 and HB 2673, that have the same aims as Hough’s Senate bill.

In testimony, Mizzou’s government liaison, Dustin Schnieders, said current law allows universities to offer some advanced degrees only in partnership with the MU system, and he testified that the proposed change would drive up the cost of higher education in the state.

A Senate fiscal analysis states MU officials believe starting new graduate, professional and engineering programs will create increased administrative expenses at those institutions while causing a corresponding loss of state funding to the MU system.

MSU impact
MSU has eight active professional doctoral programs, according to Julie Masterson, associate provost and dean of the Graduate College, and another program – an educational doctorate – was just approved to begin this fall. MSU’s doctoral programs were approved by the Coordinating Board for Higher Education to be offered independently of MU.

Some of the programs offered are mandated by their professions, Masterson said.

“If you want to be an audiologist, you have to get a doctoral degree to practice,” she said, referring to the Doctor of Audiology degree offered at MSU. “If you want to be a physical therapist, you have to get a Doctor of Physical Therapy.”

Other doctoral degrees offered at MSU are Doctor of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nurse Anesthesia, Nursing Practice, Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy and Psychology.

While some doctorates are required by their professions, others are desired by the workforce, Masterson said, noting the needs are profession specific.

In determining which doctoral programs to offer, Masterson said several considerations have to be kept in mind. The needs of the market are one, and the interest and resources of existing faculty are others. If departments have the person-power and resources to offer advanced programs, they would be the ones to propose them, she said.

“Those decisions are so intricately involved with faculty expertise and what they want to do, what they’re able to do and what’s needed,” she said.

She noted the audiology doctorate is an example of a program the university offered but would have lost if it had not developed the doctoral program.

“We are the only audiology program at a state institution,” she said, noting Washington University, a private institution, has the state’s only other program.

“It was important for us to be able to continue to fulfill that mission,” she said.

The University of Missouri is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Learning. MSU’s designation is Doctoral/Professional, Masterson said, but she added that the classification system is undergoing a change.

This may be partly because the holdings of large research libraries are more readily available than ever before through online access, making research accessible in places like the Bootheel – and making the Carnegie classifications less relevant.

Masterson said changes are centered on describing universities by explaining what they are all about, rather than by the highest degrees they confer.

“It sounds like it could be a step in the right direction,” she said.

Masterson said MSU’s professional doctoral programs are of high quality and rigor.

“If my kid wanted to be in policy planning in Washington, D.C., I’d be sending them to our Strategic Studies program,” she said. “That’s my yardstick – would I send my kid there? We’ve done a nice job of ensuring that what we offer are high-quality, high-demand programs.”

The bill remains in its committee, which is chaired by Sen. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, and is not yet scheduled for a vote.

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