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Opinion: Lack of funding hurts work force, community

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When it comes to state funding for higher education, Missouri ranks near the bottom of the list.

The state’s already low support for education, combined with a two-year freeze on tuition at public colleges and universities, has resulted in a level of state appropriation and available tuition that is a threat to the economic future of Missouri.

Ozarks Technical Community College is Missouri’s lowest-funded college – about $1,100 in state funding for each full-time equivalent student, the least among the 12 member systems of the Missouri Community College Association – and is uniquely affected by poor state and local funding. It is also the state’s youngest and fastest-growing community college. As reported in the college’s recently released economic impact study, OTC contributes more than $211 million each year to the economy of southwest Missouri through a combination of college operations, student spending and productivity of graduates in the work force. If the college were forced to cut its programs or cap enrollment, it would have a profound effect on the area economy.

In this time of economic uneasiness, Missouri is among many states that are finding it difficult to adequately fund public institutions. Add in the fact that this also is a time of unprecedented demand for higher education, and this is a cause for concern, because Missouri’s current funding system does not recognize changes in enrollment.

Growing institutions such as OTC are being penalized for serving more students, receiving less money per student, while institutions that choose not to or are unable to increase enrollment receive proportionately more money per student. The $1,100 OTC receives in state funding hasn’t increased for many years and is inadequate for helping to pay for the infrastructure the school needs to keep up with enrollment growth.

Community college leaders are encouraged that Commissioner of Higher Education David Russell has convened a committee to look at performance funding for public higher education. The intention is to reach an agreement on how to institute performance funding for the state’s public colleges and universities. Leaders at Missouri community colleges feel strongly that enrollment change must be a factor in any performance funding plan; clearly, serving more students is the key to serving the state. Public community colleges now serve more Missourians than public universities, which makes the need for an enrollment-sensitive formula more vital than ever.

The Missouri Legislature has allowed the state’s community colleges, both individually and through the Missouri Community College Association, to communicate the need to minimize cuts to higher education funding. While never pleased with a funding cut, community college leaders are grateful to Gov. Nixon and the Legislature that the cuts are expected to be no more than 7 percent. Last year at this time, cuts were expected to be 15 percent to 25 percent.

The state has made no investment in capital projects for the public colleges and universities for many years, aside from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, of which community colleges received only a miniscule portion, at $2 million apiece. The lack of funding for deferred maintenance and construction to handle increased enrollment will lead to dramatically higher costs in the future, requiring even more funding than what is currently needed. The House Higher Education Committee has held hearings on a bill to call for a vote of the people to decide whether to provide $850 million in bonds for higher education, public parks and other state projects. If successful, community colleges would receive 15 percent of the total. This bill is not likely to pass the legislature this year, but the hearings are useful to flesh out support for next year.

Studies have shown that industry recruitment and economic development suffers in states that do not invest in their public colleges and universities. Put simply: Businesses struggle when they cannot find enough well-trained employees; citizens struggle when they cannot improve their earning potential; and communities struggle when businesses and citizens leave in search of greener pastures.

Efforts to revise funding formulas, minimize cuts, and seek out other funding options are all vital. The fact remains, however, that Missouri is one of the lowest states for state funding of higher education. Depending on which study is used, Missouri ranks between 45th and 49th nationwide for higher education funding, near the bottom of the list.  If that ranking does not change, low rankings in economic growth, business success, average income, and dependency on social programs will be soon to follow.

Hal Higdon, Ph.D., is president of Ozarks Technical Community College. He may be reached at higdonh@otc.edu.[[In-content Ad]]

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