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Missouri should make funding public universities a top priority

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Declining state and federal funding for Midwestern land-grant universities over many years has delivered a one-two punch to the national research profiles and economies of the cities and states where these schools are located. Public universities on the east and west coasts, along with private institutions, are furthering the decline by cherry-picking researchers from Midwestern schools.

States like Missouri need to devote more revenue to flagship universities to keep them viable destinations for talented researchers and scientists. Since 2000, public universities have lost 25 percent of their state funding per student. When adjusted for inflation, Missouri’s appropriation for higher education last year was 15 percent less than in 1990.

The problem got worse this year when Gov. Eric Greitens cut $159 million from the state’s higher education budget, with about $40 million of that coming out of the operating budget for the University of Missouri system.

More than half of the nation’s basic research has been routinely conducted on public university campuses, but federal funding for research has failed to keep pace with inflation since 2008. If Trump administration proposals to slash billions of dollars from the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health are factored in, the hole gets deeper for university-based research.

The cuts will hurt the Midwest more because flagship institutions prop up local economies and provide the talent pool needed to attract diversified businesses. State problems, such as pension threats in Illinois and tenure fears in Wisconsin, have led to an exodus of faculty and research funding from those state universities.

Better-funded and higher-paying private institutions, industrial and international competitors, are scooping up local talent. Private universities have large endowments that shield them from the most severe effects of funding cuts. Public universities don’t have that protection.

The endowments of Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State universities, with nearly 190,000 students, are less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion endowment. Harvard’s has about 22,000 students.

Dan Reed, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Iowa, says the nation is endangering a public higher-education system that took more than 150 years to develop and is the envy of the world. “We could in a decade do so much damage that it could take us 30 years to recover,” he told higher-education writer Jon Marcus.

Regional equality is in peril along with the research institutions. Public universities shore up the economies of smaller cities, such as Columbia, Mo., where deregulation and corporate consolidation have led to the decline of agriculture and local industries.

Talented university scientists who can take research funding with them head for coast-based institutions with better economies and prospects for job growth. Midwestern states need to make funding higher education a priority because there’s more at stake than just the institutions themselves.

Article source: http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/20171112/missouri-should-make-funding-public-universities-top-priority