Changes to higher education on horizon

Calling on colleges and universities to adopt a higher education agenda focusing on “ambitious goals” that serves the needs of both the state’s workforce and economic development opportunities, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon outlined his priorities during a speech last month at the Higher Education Summit.

While asking institutions to key in on attainment, academic program review, cooperation and collaboration and funding, Nixon cautioned in his speech that his higher education agenda would be restricted by the economy, but said higher education is at a crossroads.

The message got across to University President Bruce Speck, who lists Nixon’s four priorities among his own for the new academic year.

Speck said the Coordinating Board for Higher Education would be the starting point for academic program review, and schools have already been engaged in talks about collaboration from both an academic and business stance.

“The University of Missouri has done a lot of groundwork on a portal where we all go and get supplies,” Speck said. “Say we order a thousand pencils on campus and all the schools total order 15,000. The quantity issue would then help us get a break. The collaboration, it’s not absolutely stable, but they’ve been looking at things.

“They’re looking at all kinds of ways to be more efficient and save money,” he added.

On the topic of academic collaboration, Speck said possibilities include multiple schools sharing an instructor for a specialized course.

“We’re looking into that,” he said.

The Governor encouraged an alignment between K-12 curriculum and college entrance standards to boost attainment, and said more students in two and four-year colleges need to stay in school and earn degrees.

“Currently, only about 37 percent of the young adults in Missouri hold a post-secondary degree,” Nixon said. “That puts us slightly below average among our Mid-western peers.”

In his speech, Nixon also said the number of new academic programs created at public schools in 2009 was greater than the number of programs discontinued by a five to one margin, calling the pace of growth “simply unsustainable.”

“We must take a hard and unsentimental look at all academic programs, and cull those that are of low productivity, low priority, or duplicative,” Nixon said.

Nixon also called for a multi-year funding model, allowing schools to better predict future budget situations, and said a funding formula approved by the coordinating board two years ago must be considered.

That formula consists of three main points: core funding, strategic initiatives and performance funding.

“This model departed from the business as usual approach of across-the-board funding changes,” Nixon said. “No doubt, in light of the major economic changes we have experienced, it will need a second look and possible revision. For example, I believe it needs to put more emphasis on specific institutional missions and performance and less on existing costs.”

Speck said Southern is working to ensure it can raise more funds, and that the Foundation is becoming more involved with the community.

“We’re looking at ways we can tap people for funds and we’ll need that because also part of the Governor’s four-pronged approach is to help us as we look at the 2012 budget year,” Speck said.

Nixon did address the looming cuts across the state, saying that around $900 million in federal stabilization funds will be gone by the end of FY 2011, and he said Missouri is facing a budget gap in 2012 of up to $500 million.

“That means that the potential cuts in FY 2012 across state government – including higher education – will be substantial,” Nixon said, emphasizing the final word.

Speck said Southern faces a 15 percent cut in state appropriations, and possibly more.

“At least they’re looking at 15 percent but we’ll see when the legislature comes in session,” he said.