It seems to be a tale as old as time at this point — higher education funding is suffering in Missouri and across the nation.

You’ll find some of the staggering research in today’s front-page story. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in 2018 was more than $6.6 billion below what it was in 2008 just before the Great Recession fully took hold, according to a report last month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The most significant result of chronic underfunding is that tuition — higher education’s other major revenue source — goes up, saddling students with crushing costs and debt and, in some cases, preventing them from getting a degree at all.

Those who are harmed the most, the report points out, are need-based students — those who are from low-income families and rely on financial aid that can’t keep up with rising tuition costs, and those who represent minority populations that face additional barriers to employment and higher-paying jobs.

Frankly, that’s a lot of us.

We know it’s not as easy as just giving colleges and universities more money. Missouri, by law, has to have a balanced budget, so more money for higher education would mean, presumably, less money for another area. And some things, such as public K-12 education, have funding formulas that are outlined by law.

Additionally, there are potentially a few complicating factors that could come up on the November 2020 ballot.

Initiative petitions are being sought to expand Medicaid in Missouri and to redefine public school funding, both of which — if they make it to the ballot and are approved by voters — could alter the state’s budgeted obligations.

Even so, we believe there should be a way to prioritize our public colleges and universities to reduce the increasing burden shouldered by students.

If we as a state are demanding more skilled workers and creating jobs for those workers, then we need to ensure that our college students have access to the degrees and skills required of those jobs.

To the credit of the current administration and state lawmakers, Missouri may be turning a corner.

After years of stagnant or reduced state funding, colleges and universities saw a boost this fiscal year, and local university leaders are hopeful that the trend will continue.

We hope so too.

Higher education must be a priority of our state government if we are to be successful, and we ask lawmakers to support Missouri’s colleges and universities when they reconvene in January.

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