Public colleges and universities throughout the U.S. are relying more and more on student tuition and fees to make ends meet, and institutions in the St. Louis region have been no exception to that trend.
Just in the past few weeks, money squabbles within the Southern Illinois University System have made headlines, as did a University of Missouri-St. Louis committee report that recommends investing in some academic areas while eliminating others, including theater, anthropology and more.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the impact of higher education’s ongoing budget crisis on those at the heart of the whole matter: the students.
Several local undergrads from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the University of Missouri-St. Louis joined the conversation, along with Dennis McDonald, an adjunct instructor at St. Louis Community College and at Jefferson College.
“I think it’s really sad in the sense that students are going into more debt than ever before just to try and get a degree, and yet some current students may be just losing out on their program,” Ryan Bieri, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at SIUE, said of the overall funding situation.
He noted that many administrators’ salaries remain “very high” even as employees and students see more and more programs and jobs on the chopping block.
“Maybe there’s an argument to be made that [the administrators] can start taking cuts instead of taking away from the students themselves,” said Bieri.
Dre Williams, a theater and business major at UMSL, said he was particularly saddened to learn several weeks ago that the university report recommends “inactivating” the theater program, which has been the driving force keeping him at UMSL.
“It’s disheartening,” said Williams, who is the student director of next weekend’s UMSL production at the Kranzberg Arts Center. “I’m a student that has gotten a lot of help from that department in many ways. That department has felt like family more so than anywhere else … They’ve provided opportunities for me more than anywhere else I’ve been on campus, and I really feel like they care about the students in that department.”
Daniel Redeffer, a public policy and administration major at UMSL who expects to graduate about $60,000 in debt, said much of the overall issue comes down to a matter of priorities and political will.
“We can’t continue to give Rex [Sinquefield] his tax cuts and fund education at the same time,” Redeffer said.
McDonald, who teaches history and also delivers pizzas on the weekend to help make ends meet for his family, echoed that focus on putting pressure on the people making choices at the state level.
“This is obviously something that people care deeply about, and it’s important to hold these administrations accountable,” he said, “but it’s also important to hold the ones holding the purse strings [legislators] accountable.”
Williams said he encourages other college students to make their voices heard.
“I think from the administration’s standpoint, it’s easy to cut that [theater] program, because it’s not an uncommon trend to cut arts programs,” he said. “It’s usually the first thing to go. And at UMSL, they cut the dance program a little while ago, and they were just taking little pieces off. Now that it’s time to reassess the financial situation of what programs they want to keep and what they want to do, it just seems like they’re picking on the smallest group.”
At SIUE, Bieri said, the mass communications department where he makes his academic home has been continually understaffed, sometimes making it difficult to fulfill course requirements for his major as he pursues a career in journalism.
“We haven’t had a photojournalism class since the fall of 2015,” he added.
McDonald applauded the students for speaking out and noted that it’s not just his own paycheck as a local adjunct professor or a certain program at a certain university that is at stake.
“Our institutions as a whole are at risk,” he said. “Community colleges, our universities, our state systems – all of those are a vehicle for lifting people out of poverty, and we’re putting all of that at risk. As tuition rises, less people are going to be able to afford [it].”
Redeffer said there are plans for an intercollegiate demonstration outside the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 14.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer,Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.