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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

Amid Appropriation Uncertainty, MSU Building Financial Sustainability Plan

Clif Smart
Ryan Welch

After years of increased appropriations for higher education, Missouri’s recent revenue situation has led to fewer dollars for the state’s colleges and universities. And it’s not expected to get better anytime soon. That’s why at Missouri State University officials began this summer preparing a financial sustainability plan.

Last year’s withholding from the state totaled 9 percent, or around $8 million. MSU gets its money from two sources primarily; state appropriations and student tuition and fees. The better the state funding it receives, the better it can do in holding down tuition, according to university president Clif Smart.

“We got this significant reduction this year. We anticipate at least the potential for further reductions in the next two to three years and so we thought we needed to put together a plan to deal with that rather than just passing those costs on to students and raising tuition dramatically.”

To handle this year’s reductions, the university reduced about 60 percent of its services. That included eliminating some personnel, cutting school events and trimming department budgets.

“But you can only do that so long until the services and programs that you’re offering suffer,” he says.

Therefore, Smart says MSU anticipates needing to “do more on the tuition and fees side” while keeping affordability a priority.

“This plan is to both deal with the affordability issues while at the same time recognizing that we’re going to have to replace some of the revenue.”

The plan is based on four pillars. In addition to affordability, the school wants to become more efficient, grow revenue outside of tuition increases and evaluate tuition and fee and scholarship policies.

Much of the discussion so far has dealt with ways to reduce student costs. Officials are currently looking into reducing the number of credit hours students need to graduate. The current requirement is 125.

“80 percent of our programs though you could really graduate with 120 hours without impacting the classes you have to take in your major or general education requirements, etcetera.”

Such a reduction, says Smart, would save students about $1,100. He doesn’t anticipate the school losing much revenue from such a plan, but calls it a significant savings for students looking to enter the workforce quicker.

Another group is exploring the impact of moving to open textbooks, which is made available online, to reduce student costs. Also being considered is transition developmental classes – which cost students $210 per credit hour but don’t count toward their required credits – into that class that does count.

These initiatives could be rolled out as soon as next semester, he says.

Smart’s message to students is “If tuition and fees go up, know that we’re working in other ways to offset those costs.”

Smart acknowledges there are a lot of moving parts to the financial planning process. The school’s bills, for example, will continue to go up. He notes an increase is forthcoming for the employee pension fund, a need to hire more employees, and to give current employees a raise. Meanwhile, popular programs like nursing might need to be expanded, but in order to add more students it will need more teachers to keep the faculty-student ratio in check.

“But at the same time figuring out can we do things more efficiently and save money to reallocate and can we stop doing something and are there some programs that have outlives their usefulness or that the money will be better spent somewhere else.”

Other options will become clear in the coming weeks and months after MSU learns of the pension increase, what inflation is, as well as the governor’s projected budget.

As far as private funding, which has been a big contributor to various capital projects on campus, Smart says it’s difficult for such funding to replace ongoing needs. He believes there could be an additional emphasis on private gifts to support faculty salaries through endowed chairs and professorships. Scholarships, he says, also become more important as tuition goes up. 

Above, here our full conversation with President Clif Smart, which is conducted for our monthly Engaging the Community program.

Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu

Scott joined KSMU in November 2012. He had previously served five years as news director for KETR-FM, the public radio station in Commerce, Texas. A graduate of Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Scott enjoys producing human-interest stories, among other pieces that educate and engage the community. When not at work, he’s often taking part in outdoor activities, exploring new areas and restaurants, or staying up-to-date with the latest news and information. Scott was born and raised in Shenandoah, Iowa.