Rachel Shriver is set to graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City next year but she’s already thinking about how her two kids are going to pay for college a decade from now.
She’s had a tough path to this point: She had her first kid when she was young and most of her family never made it to college. “I'm just hoping to have a better life with my kids … that’s the whole reason I’m in school,” Shriver said.
To make it work, she’s taken out more than $50,000 in loans. And that’s a situation many Missouri college students find themselves in. State funding hasn’t kept up with student enrollment or inflation, higher education experts say, and that has colleges relying on tuition and fees to close the gap.
Adjusted for inflation, state funding for public four-year colleges has dropped 46% per student since 2000, according to KCUR’s analysis of state data obtained through a public records request. Community colleges have seen a 44% decrease.
“Shifting that burden from the state to the individual, to the student, has meant students now have to have to weigh the potential benefit of further education, with the costs and their ability to get funded or borrow money,” said Brian Millner, president and CEO of the lobbyist group Missouri Community College Association. “That wasn't the case for my parents or my grandparents in their potential pursuits of education.”
‘There’s not a pot of gold’
When state economies are struggling, higher education is typically first on the chopping block. Nationally, funding for higher education has dropped due to the tech bubble bursting in the early 2000s and the Great Recession, according to Sophia Laderman. She’s a senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
“It's one of the only things you can cut because there is this other revenue source in tuition,” Laderman said. “So a lot of times higher education is used as sort of the balance wheel for state budgets.”
Republican Rep. Rusty Black, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Education Appropriations, said he supports increasing higher education funding, but added that lawmakers have to work within a balanced budget.
“There’s not a pot of gold at the end of any rainbow within our state,” he said.
In Missouri, higher education is susceptible to cuts because it’s one of the few places that lawmakers can cut. Most of the state’s funding is mandatory and higher ed makes up the largest chunk of spending that’s discretionary.
“When state funding doesn't keep up with inflation or enrollment increases, it just puts pressure on every other part of an institution's budget,” according to Paul Wagner, the executive director of the Council on Public Higher Education, which lobbies on public universities’ behalf. “Whether that be tuition or fees, or simply making cuts that ultimately will erode the quality of the programs and services that are provided to students.”
Adjusted for inflation, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees at a public four-year university in Missouri has increased by 61% since 1999, according to data from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.
But the state’s public colleges and universities are limited when it comes to tuition hikes due to a 2007 bill that capped increases to the consumer price index. The law was modified in 2018 to allow colleges to raise tuition if the state cuts higher education funding, although colleges can’t go up beyond 5%.
University of Missouri System spokesman Christian Basi said the 2018 modification gave the UM system, which has more than 70,000 students enrolled across four universities, a “relief valve” if the state withholds funding. But Basi said the UM system is committed to keeping tuition as low as possible.
“The University of Missouri, across all four campuses, have taken extremely aggressive measures to lower the cost of education for all of our students,” Basi said. “We have many new scholarship programs in place. We have reduced room and board costs at some of our campuses.”
UMKC is within the UM system. For an undergraduate in-state UMKC student, the total tuition and required fees, per year, is about $10,324.38, according to data from the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.
UMKC sophomore Jess Merritt was already thinking about how to pay for college in seventh grade. She was raised by a single mom on a teacher’s salary so she knew money was tight.
“We kind of knew going in that I was going to need as many scholarships as possible, and we were going to be taking out some loans,” she said. “And it was just kind of inevitable and it happened.”
Meritt, who is studying environmental science, has taken out about $16,000 in student loans, and her mom also took out loans to help.
“It's been a real stress,” Merritt said. “It's something that's on my mind a lot and I hope I can pay my mom back after I get a job in my field.”
Dominique Paje is UMKC’s chapter president of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri,which lobbies for student interests at the state capitol. Paje said every year ASUM surveys students to find out what the group should focus on.
“College affordability remains the top concern among all of our students among any other issue that people have,” Paje said.
It’s also an issue for students who haven’t had to take out loans. For UMKC engineering student Lee Smith, paying for college means balancing a part-time job on top of coursework, which she said can feel “a little hopeless.”
“I don't really have any free time,” Smith said. “Everything is either spent in class, going to tutoring for class and then going to work right after that.”
At Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, it’s those indirect costs that prove to be the biggest hurdle, according to Vice Chancellor for Student Financial Services Dena Norris.
“A lot of the barriers that students often face are external factors like child care expenses, transportation expenses,” said Norris, whose college provides students with a bus pass.
What schools are doing without
At Missouri State University in Springfield, the decline of state funding led to a number of cuts, from the field hockey team to staff-level positions.
“We've had to eliminate positions,” MSU President Clif Smart said. “We've had to discontinue some operations. We've had to reallocate funding. We've had years where our employees didn't get a cost of living increase.”
But he believes things will turn around, noting that Gov. Mike Parson’s administration and the GOP-led General Assembly boosted funding in the 2019 session. Public universities got a $1 million core increase, but MSU received a $10 million increase.
In an April 30 column, Smart said MSU gets the lowest amount of state funding per student and that extra funding boost eliminates “the disparity between MSU and the next lowest-funded university.” Smart said the money will go to complying with the minimum wage law, paying pensions and reducing a planned tuition increase.
“I mean, essentially, we're not using [the increase] to create a bunch of new programs and build new stuff,” he told KCUR. “It's really kind of a catch-up.”
There’s also a $1.4 billion backlog in deferred maintenance on campuses, yet another effect of lagging state funding. A 2018 report found common trends statewide included elevators that didn’t meet code requirements, overloaded electrical systems and general entrances that didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Administrators have largely chosen to try to protect the classroom experience from these kinds of financial pressures and have often done so at the expense of needed maintenance and repairs on the physical parts of campus,” higher education lobbyist Wagner said.
Plus, it’s getting more expensive to educate and support students, Millner said, especially when it comes to services.
“There may not be a political appetite for this conversation, but the need for mental health services has increased dramatically on our college campuses,” Millner said. “Some of the work that we're doing to prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct on campuses … all these things cost of money.”
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.
KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.