02/07/2012 08:35 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2012

Mo. Primary: Mizzou Tuition May Soon Spike, As Missouri Votes

You don't have to be a student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology to do the math on Gov. Jay Nixon's mid-January budget.

The Missouri governor's proposed 12.5 percent cut to higher education funding will likely result in an average 6.5 percent tuition hike for the University of Missouri system. And Nixon's budget would increase the amount yanked from the state's public university system over the last three years to 25 percent.

A week after the Democratic governor unveiled his proposal, President Barack Obama performed a different kind of calculus in his State of the Union Address. He noted that "Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt," the very scenario Nixon's budget would appear to exacerbate.

"We're an easy target," said Missouri University of Science and Tech senior Laura Confer, referring to higher education in general. Confer has a unique perspective. Though she plans to graduate this year, until last week she served as an appointed member of the public university system's board. She carried the weight of her peers' futures on her shoulders in a very real way, having been part of the discussions to set tuition rates, such as the proposed 6.5 percent hike.

But the burden would not be shared equally: Mizzou's Columbia campus would experience an increase of 7.5 percent. Later this week, the board will meet to confirm the number. Other campuses such as Confer's might have a lower rate.

This tension over disappearing public funding for higher education is front and center as the bellwether Show-Me State takes part in today's primary.

And many of Mizzou's students are up in arms. On Monday the Missouri Students Association began setting up tables around campus to take action against the tuition hikes. By midday Tuesday, the student association had solicited from dismayed students 3,000 letters against the proposed funding cuts.

As students scramble to figure out how they would pay for next semester's tuition, some are asking is Nixon's proposal the only way to proceed. At least one student noticed that President Barack Obama raised the issue of college affordability, tying it to the fate of America's middle class, during his recent State of the Union address.

"Nixon can learn a lesson from our president about how important education is to Missourians," said Ben Levin, a Columbia, Mo., student active in the student association. Levin, who interned for Nixon last summer, declined to state which candidate he'll vote for.

The office of Gov. Nixon did not return repeated phone requests for comment.

The issue of education affordability might prove fertile ground for Obama's candidacy not only in Missouri but across the country. "At a time when college education has never been more important, it's also never been more expensive," said Justin Hamilton, press secretary for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "While we understand and appreciate that we're in very tight budget times, we want to be very careful about putting a college education out of reach because Missouri's students can't afford it."

An official familiar with the Obama administration's thinking said there is a strategy under consideration to challenge states that drastically cut higher education funding this budget season.

Even as Republican candidates have unveiled jobs plans, the GOP debates have rarely focused on education. The Obama administration has been hammering away at its middle-class message in battleground states such as Florida with events headlined by the likes of Joe Biden aimed to stir the empathy of voters, with a focus on college costs.

"This election is going to be about what things do we want government to be cutting back on, and what things we think government should be investing in," Levin says. "It's disappointing that some politicians who have primaries today think that education is something that can be cut back on without very damaging consequences. The candidates who are running today and in November are going to get student support for realizing that education is something that is incredibly valuable to the state of Missouri."

According to experts, while it is indeed common for states to trim higher education budgets, Nixon's budget would be doing so at a rate higher than most others.

Missouri is among 41 states that cut their higher education budgets this year, according to a recent report out of Illinois State University.

"Overtime, we've seen a disinvestment by states in higher education," says Jennifer Engle, who directs higher education research and policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit think tank. "It's led to a continual increase in the share of costs being covered by students and their parents.Tuition as opposed to state subsidies now covers half the cost of higher education at a public institution, up from 37 percent. The burden [is] moving away from states and toward students."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Gov. Jay Nixon is a Republican. The story has been updated to reflect that he is a Democrat.