Since Gov. Eric Greitens announced his Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal in February, and in some cases before that, there have been ongoing discussions amongst administrators at Missouri’s colleges and universities about how to manage fewer appropriations.
At Missouri State University, the challenge is filling an 8.9 percent gap. At Missouri State University West Plains, the cut is 7.4 percent. Given its separately accredited status, West Plains manages its own budget. It’s among the operational differences between the two schools, which are both part of the Missouri State University System.
“West Plains is accredited based on how they do as an individual campus,” says President Clif Smart. “And so one of the requirements is they have their own budget and they have to deal with that themselves.”
On March 24, budget committees from both the Springfield and West Plains campuses will present their reports to the MSU Board of Governors.
Smart says one of the budget challenges facing West Plains is “They don’t have that enrollment growth to help them get over the hump in terms of extra expenses.” Whereas in Springfield the campus has experienced consistent growth in recent years, and continuing that trend will again be a goal this fall to help limit cuts to other areas.
Enrollment at West Plains, says Smart, has “kind of leveled off” between 1,900 and 2,100 students in the fall.
West Plains is an open admissions campus, meaning high school graduates or GED recipients can study at the school. That’s not true for Springfield, a four-year university that chooses its students based on ACT scores and grade point average.
“A piece of that difference is [West Plains] is really designed as an entry point for higher education for an area that is really one of the poorest areas in our state and frankly one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation,” says Smart.
Given those demographics, Smart says there tends to be a higher percentage of students needing remedial work upon entering college, including math, for example.
"So there's a much bigger question of trying to get those students ready to do college-level work, than at a very selective, or selective college institution as we are here in Springfield."
Smart says West Plains also enrolls a large percentage of first generation college students, noting about 14 percent of Howell County citizens age 25-65 have a four-year degree. In Greene County, by contrast, it's closer to 40 percent, he says.
"There are just additional challenges and obstacles, including financial, for the students going to West Plains than for the bulk of students going to Springfield."
He says a lot of the growth at West Plains through the years has been fueled by the A+ Program, which allows students to attend a two-year school tuition free. But the campus is nearing capacity for such students, says Smart. It means future growth will occur when more people from West Plains’ seven-county service area decide to go to school, the campus begins serving more non-traditional students, or it expands to offer more specialized programs like workforce development.
In 2016, both West Plains and Springfield officials worked together in developing long-range plans for each campus. Six months after Springfield unveiled its plan, West Plains revealed theirs. It outlines goals over a five-year period.
“Many of the goals for accountability are the same,” says Smart. “Graduation rates, retention rates, diversity of our faculty and staff that work there.”
Additionally, West Plains is looking to expand into advanced manufacturing programs, tasks Smart says have typically been left to community colleges.
The school has come a long way since its start in summer 1963, when Southwest Missouri State College (SMS) established a Residence Center in West Plains. The effort is credited to State Representative Granvil Vaughan who, according to Smart, “Advocated for a two-year school to be in this seven-county area.”
Vaughan didn’t feel the area could support a tax levy for a community college, so he needed a four-year institution to take that project on. At the time, Missouri State University, then Southwest Missouri State College, was the closest.
“The requirement was you had to have at least 100 students that want to take some college courses. They began meeting in the high school in West Plains,” says Smart.
It took on the name Missouri State University-West Plains when the system name change for the Springfield campus went into effect in 2005.
KSMU reported on the campuses 50th anniversary in 2013.
Above, hear the full conversation with President Clif Smart, part of KSMU's monthly program Engaging the Community.