Our Opinion: Higher education elevated to high priority

Higher education is high on the list of topics being discussed this legislative session.

The Missouri Senate on Tuesday advanced a bill that would establish five performance-based criteria for the state’s colleges and universities.

The action occurred on the same day the four-campus University of Missouri System held its 40th annual Legislative Day at the Capitol.

Performance, tuition and eliminating duplication are among the higher education priorities identified by legislators.

The performance funding proposal sponsored by Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, would place into law four standards set by state government and one selected by the school. Examples of state standards are student retention and graduation.

The schools voluntarily have received some performance funding money in the 2013-14 state budget.

Gov. Jay Nixon has asked — and offered financial incentives — for public colleges and universities to hold the line on tuition increases.

He reiterated the point at the University of Missouri rally when he praised the system’s administrators for “answering the call” to freeze undergraduate tuition for the 2014-15 academic year.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal this session regarding higher education is an initiative by Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, to eliminate duplication through coordination or consolidation.

“We’ve got 13 four-year public campuses,” Schaefer said last week. “We’ve got a lot of duplication — and not just duplication of programs, but also lots of duplication on … things that we’re spending money on.”

Schaefer has questioned why the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education hasn’t done more to improve efficiency and decrease costs.

The answer is the board’s authority is limited, purposely, to concentrate control in the governing bodies for each school.

Schaefer also has called attention to low graduation rates and whether open enrollment policies at some four-year schools should be eliminated. Lincoln University, which graduated 31.5 percent of its students in recent years, is among the open-enrollment institutions.

All of these issues are worthy of analysis and debate.

The importance of a well-trained, well-educated work force is a constant.

But as modernization and technology alter the work force, education also must adapt.

The model that guided higher education in the past may not be desirable, or affordable, for the future.

This conversation — including asking tough questions — will help us become smarter about higher education.

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