Board Delays Action on Agreement with TRCC

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

March 10, 2005 – The Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents today discussed but took no action on a proposed agreement with Three Rivers Community College (TRCC) that would have authorized resumption of a partnership between the two institutions for teaching courses at three area higher education centers south of Cape Girardeau.

The University on Feb. 25 announced that it was terminating its partnership with TRCC at the end of the current (spring) semester, and that Southeast would be offering both upper- and lower-division courses leading to a Bachelor of General Studies degree at the Sikeston, Malden, and Kennett higher education centers starting this summer.

It was announced at that time that TRCC would no longer be teaching general education courses at the centers, but would be invited to continue offering technical courses leading to the Associate of Applied Science degree, as well as customized training and workforce development programs essential to the region’s economic development.

After a closed session today to discuss legal contractual matters, Board President John Tlapek of Cape Girardeau said the proposed agreement as developed by Dr. Gregory Fitch, Missouri’s Commissioner of Higher Education, after a meeting Monday in Sikeston with Southeast President Ken Dobbins and TRCC President John Cooper, is an excellent start, but the draft agreement is too vague to guarantee that the needs of the students, the region, and the University would be met.

Tlapek said the Board took no formal action at today’s conference call meeting, but instructed President Dobbins to bring a more detailed version of the proposed agreement to the board in early April after all student service and financial issues are fully resolved and put in writing. “We must first make certain we have a clear understanding of responsibilities so that future disagreements will not occur between the two institutions to the detriment of students,” the Board president said.

To demonstrate good faith as these talks continue, the University plans to invite TRCC to teach a limited number of courses for the summer term at the centers, but Southeast is continuing to register students in Southeast freshman and sophomore level courses for the summer and fall terms at the centers.

After the Board meeting, Dobbins said, “There are a lot of rumors in the Poplar Bluff area and in the Bootheel to the effect that Three Rivers will be teaching courses at the three centers next fall, but the Board of Regents has not agreed to rescind the decision announced Feb. 25 until all details regarding student issues are resolved.”

He also said rumors that Southeast would be closing several degree completion programs it currently operates in Poplar Bluff are not true. “The Regents want people to know that Southeast is committed to serving the Poplar Bluff area, and our existing programs there will continue,” Dobbins said.

Dobbins said the Board made it clear that the University remains committed to offering the Bachelor of General Studies degree at the three centers as a service to students in the Bootheel area, as announced Feb. 25.

Tlapek said the Board believes students and the Bootheel communities can be well served by the two institutions working together at the higher education centers, provided several student service issues can be worked out.

He said the proposed draft agreement is very positive, because it addresses many of the financial fairness issues related to operating the area higher education centers.

University officials have said that Southeast is responsible for all operating costs of the centers – an annual expense of over $1.1 million – and suffers a yearly loss of over $800,000 after factoring in the revenue it receives from student fees charged for courses taught by the University. The loss occurs because the majority of courses at the centers are taught by TRCC, which receives the bulk of student fee revenue.

Under the present agreements that Southeast terminated effective May 14, TRCC has been teaching all freshman and sophomore courses at Kennett and Malden, and half of those courses at Sikeston. Southeast offers only upper division and graduate classes at Kennett and Malden and half of the lower division courses at Sikeston.

This arrangement means TRCC has had a revenue stream based on about 75% of all the credit hours taught at the three centers, but has borne little of the $1.1 million annual direct cost of operating and maintaining the facilities.

“The financial issue is simply one of fairness,” Dobbins explained. “In operating the centers, Southeast loses over $800,000 a year, while TRCC is earning a net profit of almost $900,000 annually because it has not shared in paying the direct cost of operations. This $800,000 loss means that roughly $130 a year of the fees paid by every Southeast student goes to subsidize operation of the three centers, basically for the benefit of TRCC. That situation simply could not be allowed to continue.”

Commissioner Fitch met Monday with Dobbins and Cooper in an effort to resurrect the partnership between the two schools, to fairly apportion the centers’ direct operating costs, and to resolve several student service issues.

Fitch and the two presidents developed the outline of an agreement under which TRCC and Southeast would each pay half the direct cost of operating the centers. Under the proposed agreement, Southeast would offer 40% of the freshman and sophomore courses at each of the centers and TRCC would offer the other 60%.

In addition, under the proposal TRCC would dedicate all funds received from a $5 per credit hour technology fee paid by its students at the centers to maintain state-of-the-art computer technology at the three centers. University officials said TRCC has been collecting $5 per credit hour from its students at the centers – about $90,000 annually — to pay for this technology, but has not provided sufficient updates to equipment at the centers as required by an agreement with Southeast. If the draft proposal is ultimately approved, the agreement will insure that the technology fees collected from TRCC’s students at the centers will remain in the centers to upgrade equipment. 

While this agreement would make the centers more viable from a financial standpoint, Dobbins said the Board of Regents wants assurances that a number of other issues, primarily involving services to students, are resolved before inviting TRCC to offer courses at the centers in the fall of 2005. Among the issues are long-range planning of sequences of courses; establishment of enrollment targets before classes are cancelled; and problems involving financial aid, TRCC textbook rental systems, and other billing problems.

 “Our goal is to make certain that both parties to any agreement understand all their obligations to the partnership, so we can avoid any future misunderstandings,” Tlapek said. “We are fully committed to providing convenient and affordable higher education access to our region, and to providing the best possible services to students who enroll at the centers.

“Our goal with respect to the financial arrangements with TRCC is simply for Southeast to break even,” the Board president said, “and we appreciate the efforts of Commissioner Fitch to recognize this need. We desire a positive working relationship with TRCC, and we are very hopeful that a detailed agreement can be brought to the Board of Regents and approved in the near future,” Tlapek concluded.