In Missouri, Getting Serious About Cost-Cutting on Campus
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Last August in Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon told state universities to look at making some hard choices they're not accustomed to having to make. Nixon, a Democrat, wants to eliminate "low-producing" academic programs in order to save money. To that end, he asked universities to review any program that fails to award an average of ten bachelor's degrees, five master's degrees or three doctorates per year.
The results of this review aren't due on the governor's desk until February, but preliminary results offer an interesting look at what may lie ahead. Institutions have volunteered to terminate 61 of the 353 programs that fell below the threshold, including programs in French, engineering physics, public administration, antiquities, sociology and recreation. More courses are expected to be on the chopping block as the schools conduct follow-up and explore opportunities to consolidate or share programs. Instead of all of the state's institutions of higher learning trying "to be everything to everybody," Nixon says, "we have to take a good hard look at what we do well."
This review is only the beginning of a major efficiency initiative that Nixon is pushing across Missouri's 13 four-year universities and 21 two-year colleges. So far, these institutions have been spared the worst of the state's budget crisis, thanks to an agreement they made with the governor two years ago to freeze tuition rates. Now, with that agreement set to expire soon — and Missouri facing a budget deficit of up to $700 million next year — higher ed is bracing for a funding reduction of as much as 20 percent next year.
While some of that gap may be filled with increases in tuition and fees, there's a growing sense, both in Missouri and across the country, that state colleges and universities can't go on simply charging students more. Increasingly, school leaders acknowledge that they need to cut their underlying cost structures, and that saving money on classroom instruction has to be part of the mix. As David Russell, Missouri's commissioner of higher education, puts it, "The last real area of higher education that's remained relatively untouched, the academic enterprise, the core of our reason for existence, is in danger of suffering some severe reductions."
Implementing such reductions, however, is easier said than done. Of all the government functions states are responsible for, higher ed has been one of the most resistant to cost-cutting. That's partially because natural rivalries exist across institutions that often see themselves as competing against each other. It's also because the institutions themselves enjoy a high degree of autonomy: In Missouri, the ability to eliminate or consolidate programs rests squarely in the hands of the individual schools and their boards. Finally, universities exist not only to grant degrees but also to enlighten — and enlightenment is a difficult thing to put a price tag on.
"If you start in on French and Latin and Greek, at some point, what is left of the concept of the academy?" says state Representative Chris Kelly, a Democrat from Columbia, which is home to the University of Missouri's flagship campus. Kelly objects to Governor Nixon injecting himself into what he sees as academic decisions best left to academics. "These institutions are there to preserve and to enhance our culture. Are French and physics essentially frippery, or are they part of an educated society? I contend that they're part of an educated society."
The least controversial place for higher ed to begin to save money is in administration. The University of Missouri system, for example, is pooling purchasing power across its four campuses to get lower prices on goods and services. Gary Forsee, the system's president, says those bulk purchasing agreements should be made available to community colleges and other four-year public institutions. Forsee says others also could piggyback off of a new e-learning platform, which will be the backbone for online instruction across the system.
Another cost-saving area is for campuses to collaborate on academic programs so that one institution doesn't duplicate the niche course offerings of another. There's a model for how to do this in Missouri, one that Nixon says he wants to see more of.
In the 1990s, growth surrounding Springfield, in the southwest corner of the state, created demand for engineering degrees. Rather than build a new engineering school at the public university in Springfield, Missouri State University, the state began importing instructors from a nationally recognized engineering program at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, just two hours away. Now Springfield students graduate with a degree from a prestigious program, and they can do it without ever setting foot on the Rolla campus.
But the Rolla-Springfield partnership serves as both a success story and a cautionary tale. Robert Stein, a former commissioner of higher education in Missouri who was involved in the development of the joint program, notes that negotiations between the two institutions, as well as others in the state who had a say in the matter, were tricky. "It took over a decade to get the institutions to agree," Stein says. "That idea was around for years, but there was a lot of infighting that prevented it from happening."
One thing that may make forging such partnerships easier is technology. Using online courses, this kind of partnership could be replicated and expanded, while eliminating the need for faculty to commute between campuses. Four-year colleges in the northwest and southeast corners of Missouri recently agreed to develop a joint program in economics that will rely heavily on Web-based technologies. The joint program will leverage the collective resources of both faculties to offer a needed program that neither school would have the instructional capacity to provide on its own.
There's also a tremendous amount of interest in Missouri in finding efficiencies and improving student outcomes by applying the principles of "course redesign." The idea is to use a mix of classroom and technology-based instruction to deliver content more efficiently.
The University of Missouri-St. Louis has experimented with this approach for some math instruction, and has improved pass rates in its algebra courses by scrapping formal lectures in favor of hands-on instruction in labs, more interactive class sessions and guided Web-based homework. "There's overlap in a basic college algebra course that you want to take advantage of in terms of getting that declarative knowledge out as efficiently as possible," says Mike Nietzel, an education advisor for the governor who formerly served as president of Missouri State University. Nixon hopes that it will take hold statewide in a way that has never been done before anywhere in the country.
These cost-cutting steps represent only the first phase of a process that may take Missouri years to fulfill. In part, that's because the institutions themselves are interested in forming consortia and finding ways to coordinate their degree offerings — complicated arrangements that will simply take longer than a budget cycle or two to implement.
Difficult as it will be, Rusty Monhollon, a senior associate for academic affairs at the Missouri Department of Higher Education, says these are steps colleges and universities should be taking anyway, whether there's a budget crisis or not. "Getting rid of programs looks best in the headlines," Monhollon says. "But I really think this is as much an exercise in finding ways to strengthen the higher education system and find areas of strength and areas of excellence and areas where we need to invest more and reallocate resources rather than just kind of slash and burn.
"It shouldn't be a one-time thing," Monhollon continues. "It should be an ongoing, dynamic process that involves all the institutions negotiating on a regular basis."