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Adam Aton
By Adam Aton October 23, 2015

Koster mostly right about erosion of higher education funding

As Attorney General Chris Koster eyes the 2016 race for Missouri governor, he’s pushing to share the ballot with a political twofer: a ballot proposal that would increase Missouri’s lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax, which would pay for a boost in the state’s higher education spending.

Speaking Aug. 20 at the Missouri State Fair, Koster, a Democrat, reiterated his support for the increasing the cigarette tax, telling the Columbia Daily Tribune: "Since 2001, higher education in the state has been cut or allowed to erode … by 35 or 40 percent."

Do those numbers add up? It takes a bit of college-boy math.

The top line

About three-quarters of the state’s higher education budget comes from the general revenue fund. The rest of the money mostly comes from the 1 cent education sales tax and other state funds. (The federal government also chips in some money — this year it was a little under $3.7 million, or 0.2 percent, of the total higher education budget.)

The average annual inflation rate between 2001 and 2015, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, was 1.918 percent for Missouri and Illinois. Inflation rates vary across the country, and the Federal Reserve calculates the inflation rate by region rather than by state.

In fiscal year 2002, higher education was allotted $1,153,954,522. After adjusting for inflation — which compounds year over year — that’s equivalent to $1,505,546,464 today.

In the most recent budget, for fiscal year 2016, $1,266,819,566 is set for higher education in Missouri. That’s a 15.9 percent decrease, short of what Koster said.

The bottom line

If you only look at dollars, though, you miss the effect of Missouri’s surging college enrollment, Koster spokesman Andrew Whalen told PolitiFact Missouri.

In fall of 2001, Missouri’s public colleges and universities enrolled 143,656 full-time equivalent students. By 2014, enrollment had risen to 184,305 students.

That’s a 28.3 percent increase in students.

(This year’s totals aren’t in yet, but enrollment peaked in 2013, when Missouri counted 185,514 full-time equivalent students in its public institutions of higher education.)

It’s hard to say exactly how much money is spent on each student across the state because each school receives money directly from the General Assembly. That money is counted in the appropriations for the Department of Higher Education — but since the department doesn’t dictate how that money is used, the department doesn’t track how much of it each institution spends, spokeswoman Liz Coleman said.

But we can still get a rough per-student funding estimate by dividing the department’s budget by the number of full-time-equivalent students. Here’s the math:

In 2001, Missouri spent $10,480.21 per student, adjusting for inflation. Assuming this year’s enrollment totals track near 2014’s (and there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting it’s not too far off), that would mean the state now spends closer to $6,873 per student.

That’s a 34.4 percent decrease in higher education funding per student.

There are a few caveats here:

  • Students aren’t directly impacted by every dollar spent by the Department of Higher Education. For instance, the department also operates the Missouri State Historical Society, and some money also goes towards operating expenses for the department itself.

  • The department funds scholarships, some of which go to students at private schools.

  • And schools also draw funding from outside the appropriations process, from sources such as tuition, donations and endowments.

So, the exact amount of money spent on each college student is a squishy number. But we can still confidently track how much the state contributes — which, in the context of raising the tobacco tax, is the essence of Koster’s statement.

Our ruling

Koster said that since 2001, higher education funding has been cut or eroded by 35 percent to 40 percent. The legislature hasn’t technically cut higher education funding over this time; nominally, the state has actually spent $100 million more on it.

But that’s not enough to keep pace with inflation. And when you factor in skyrocketing enrollment numbers, the amount of money the General Assembly has budgeted to spend on a per student basis has indeed "eroded" by about as much as Koster says it has.

Even though Koster’s statement is pretty close, it needs additional information and clarification. We rate it Mostly True.

Our Sources

Columbia Daily Tribune, Convenience stores seek to limit tobacco tax hike with competing proposal, Aug. 22, 2015

Interview with Andrew Whalen, Koster spokesman, Aug. 28, 2015

Interview with Liz Coleman, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, Aug. 28, Sept. 14, Oct. 7 and Oct. 12, 2015

Interview with Scott Holste, spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, Oct. 14, 2015

Missouri Office of Administration, Missouri budget for fiscal year 2016

Interview with St. Louis Federal Reserve spokeswoman, Sept. 4, 2015

Missouri Legislative Library, HB 3, Fiscal Year 2002 Higher Education Budget

Missouri Department of Higher Education, 2014 enrollment report

Missouri Department of Higher Education, Historical Trend in Full-Time Equivalent Enrollment at Public Institutions, table 33

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Koster mostly right about erosion of higher education funding

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