University leaders defend schools

During his first seven months as Lincoln University’s president, Kevin Rome told the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee that he’s “made some significant changes” in university operations.

“I’ve reduced the administrative overhead. We’ve merged some programs,” he testified. “We have worked on managing the budget.

“And we’ve also put in place many programs to address our retention and graduation rates, because we’re convinced that they can be better — and they will be better.”

Rome was one of 10 university presidents or chief administrators visiting with the committee during a nearly 2½-hour hearing.

Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked the schools to explain their roles in Missouri’s higher education system and, in some cases, to justify what they do in a state with 13 state-owned four-year college campuses — many similar programs — and not enough money to go around when the schools keep asking for budget increases.

LU’s new president did not quote the state law that gives LU’s curators the same powers as the University of Missouri’s curators, nor did he cite the law that gives Lincoln a statewide mandate.

“We cater to Central Missouri,” Rome testified, “and we also cater to many African-Americans in this state who want to have a certain experience, which we call a historically black college experience.”

Schaefer has said the state can’t keep the same spending policies as though all of the schools are the same. He believes the state should be doing more to reward the schools that strive for excellence, like the University of Missouri and Truman State.

He wondered what schools with poor graduation rates were doing to improve.

Harris-Stowe State University has Missouri’s lowest rate — 9.5 percent, according to federal statistics Schaefer used for all the schools.

“That number is based on a cohort of first-time/full-time, degree-seeking

freshmen,” said Constance Gully, the St. Louis school’s interim president and chief financial officer. “Much of our population is transfer students and part-time students.”

Because they’re not included in the U.S. Education department calculations, Gully said, “75 percent of our graduates since 2001 are considered invisible graduates.”

Schaefer later told reporters he agreed some students aren’t included in the graduation rate statistics, and he didn’t think that made a significant difference.

At 31.5 percent, Rome agreed with Schaefer that Lincoln needs to improve its graduation rate.

“We have established a Center for Academic Advising model,” Rome said. “At Lincoln University, prior to my arriving, we didn’t have professional academic advisers for incoming students.”

Each Missouri-owned university has chosen one of several standards for admitting students — highly selective, selective, moderately selective or open enrollment.

Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system, noted all four campuses — Columbia, Rolla, Kansas City and St. Louis — are “selective.”

“All four are the (state’s) public land grant, research institutions,” Wolfe said. “Columbia also has the Extension responsibilities — a resource that is shared by all four MU campuses and the other nine.”

Rome noted that Lincoln also is a federal land grant school, under Congress’ 1890 addition of a number of mostly historically black colleges to the land grant, agriculture and research mandate of the original 1862 law.

As he has several times in the past few weeks, Schaefer questioned why any Missouri four-year university would be an “open admissions” school “when we have this whole network of two-year community institutions that, really, serve that role as a transition between high school and four-year institutions.”

Rome said Lincoln always has had an “open admissions” policy since its founding 148 years ago by “colored” Civil War soldiers who wanted “to educate freed blacks in this state.”

Today, he said, “We are a second-chance institution for many students.”

Harris-Stowe is one of Missouri’s three open enrollment schools. Originally a pair of teachers colleges founded by the St. Louis Public Schools, they merged into one in 1954 and were added to the state system in 1979.

“We’ve been an open enrollment school for less than a decade,” Gully said, “prompted by encouragement from the Missouri Department of Higher Education, because they noticed there was an unmet need in the 18 challenged public school districts that we serve in our region.”

Robert A. Vartabedian, Missouri Western State University president, noted the St. Joseph school is “the state’s largest open enrollment university. Currently we have about 6,000 students.”

The school began as a community college in 1915, and became a four-year school in 1969. About 93 percent of its students are Missouri residents, and most still come from the St. Joseph area.

“About half of Missouri Western students are first-generation college students,” Vartabedian said, “coming from families with one of the lowest average-income levels among all the four-year state public institutions in Missouri.”

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