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Mahreen Ansari thinks Missouri’s public universities need more money. 

But she has mixed feelings about a proposed state law that would remove tuition caps at Missouri’s public colleges and universities, including at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she’s a rising senior majoring in political science. 

A July 9 media advisory from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office said he plans to sign the bill into law July 13. When the law goes into effect, UMKC will have the flexibility to restructure its tuition system and raise costs. 

“Universities, especially publicly funded universities, they’re in a pinch,” Ansari said. “They want to make sure everything runs, everyone’s being paid, etc. But it feels like it’s the easy way out to squeeze students versus, like, asking the government for more.”

A representative of the University of Missouri System, which includes UMKC and authorizes tuition changes for the university, said the system would still keep cost increases as low as possible. But UMKC and the UM System are interested in improving transparency by rolling fees into tuition.

How the legislation could change UMKC tuition

Currently, a formula tied to the cost of living increase determines how much tuition can go up in any given year. 

Christian Basi, a spokesman for the four-campus University of Missouri System, said students shouldn’t expect out-of-control cost hikes.

Basi said that even with the cap, the UM System doesn’t always raise tuition as much as it’s allowed to.

“We’re not just saying, ‘Oh, we have the ability to charge that much, we’re going to charge that much,’” he said. Rather, university leadership is asking: “What is the minimal amount of money that we need to maintain and improve the education that students expect when they come to the University of Missouri?”

In 2021-22, undergraduate tuition and fees for in-state students will be $313.90 per credit hour, according to the UMKC website. That’s up from $301.60 per credit hour for in-state undergraduates during the 2020-21 school year, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. 

The legislation would also allow universities to move to a “differential tuition” model, where some degrees cost more than others —  as long as they get rid of required course fees.

At UMKC, for instance, a fee list includes charges for subjects such as biological sciences, chemistry, social work, education, studio arts, business, media studies, medicine and nursing. 

Some fees apply to an entire subject, while others are tacked on to specialized classes, such as labs, capstones or internships. 

They range in amount from a $10.20 per credit hour legal technology fee to a flat fee of $3,000 for clinical education in a specific nursing program. 

Families may be surprised at how quickly the fees can add up. 

For example, UMKC charges a $100 fee per credit hour for computer science/engineering courses. Students in the computer science major are required to take 62 credit hours in that field, meaning they would pay $6,200 beyond tuition and standard fees.

Removing fees and lumping everything into tuition for a program could help families better understand the costs involved, Basi said. 

Differential tuition was recommended in 2016 by a UM System Review Commission convened in the wake of the 2015 racial justice protests at the system’s Columbia campus. But the model was impossible to put into place with existing tuition caps. 

Basi added that in general, humanities courses are cheaper to offer, while courses such as engineering, biology and chemistry require more materials, some of which can’t be reused. 

That worries Ansari, a former Student Government Association president at UMKC, who said she likes the idea of greater transparency about costs but not raising the prices of specific majors — especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“If STEM fields are more expensive to get into, then I feel like that would affect the amount of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and women who would go into those fields, making it even worse than what it is right now, the ratio,” she said.

Missouri low on higher education funding

Ansari said she is lucky to receive grants that fund much of her tuition, but she has friends who struggle to pay for their education.

“It’s really frustrating to see how hard they work, like extra jobs and stuff like that, to try to cover that,” she said. “And it just feels like it’s for naught for them because they still have to take out loans anyway.”

Ansari thinks the state of Missouri should provide greater funding for higher education through the legislature instead of relying on tuition to support higher education.

UMKC referred most questions to Basi but pointed out state funding challenges in statistics emailed to The Beacon.

Missouri used to give universities more money. But like many states, it cut funding to universities after the Great Recession from 2007-09. 

As the economy rebounded, Missouri lagged behind other states when it came to restoring the money. 

Compared to all other states, Missouri had the lowest growth in resources per student from 2009-2019, wrote Sharon Lindenbaum, UMKC’s vice chancellor for finance and administration. 

Missouri’s higher education resources declined by more than 10% when adjusted for inflation, Lindenbaum said, putting the state more than 20% below the national average. “Long before COVID, Missouri was lagging in resources directed to higher education.”

A fiscal year 2018 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association said Missouri was the only state where colleges’ revenues per student — defined as the sum of tuition revenue and state spending — had continued to decline since 2012. 

The association’s national reports adjust dollar amounts for inflation and other factors.

Even when state higher education spending increases, such as in fiscal year 2020 or in the most recently signed budget, funding can be precarious. 

University budgets are often among the first put at risk when the state’s income is threatened, such as by slowing revenues, the COVID-19 pandemic or the legislature veering close to the deadline to renew the federal reimbursement allowance.

And the most recent State Higher Education Executive Officers Association report, created in 2021 for the 2020 fiscal year, said state appropriations in Missouri still hadn’t rebounded to pre-recession levels. When adjusted with the association’s formula, appropriations per student were down more than 30% from 2001.

UM System leadership would likely begin discussing how a differential tuition model might work in the spring, as well as consulting with affected groups like parents and student government, Basi said. 

Differential tuition could go into effect as early as fall 2023, and the tuition cap removal would affect fall 2022 tuition.

“Having that flexibility moving forward … will allow us to maintain and establish high-quality programs,” Basi said, but the university will remain aware of market forces. 

“We also know that we cannot raise tuition and associated fees that are beyond the ability of students and their families to afford,” he said. 

UMKC is already the third most expensive public four-year university in the state, behind the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Missouri S&T. The University of Missouri flagship campus in Columbia and Northwest Missouri State University are only slightly less expensive. 

Ansari worries funding pressures for universities will tempt them to make up the difference through tuition hikes.

“We want to hope that if the removal of tuition caps happens, that our university will be super responsible about it,” she said. “But I also know that a lot of universities are obviously concerned about making ends meet.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.