State college officials have been instructed to take a good, hard look at what they offer and try to determine what cuts can be made that don’t undermine quality.

Public colleges have been instructed by the Higher Education Department to review so-called “low-producing” degree programs. The Coordinating Board for Higher Education established criteria to define such programs as undergraduate degrees that produce fewer than 10 graduates over a three year period, graduate degrees producing fewer than five graduates and doctoral degrees producing fewer than three.

Interim Higher Education Commissioner David Russell acknowledges that such numbers are at least somewhat arbitrary. They do provide a starting point for conversation, though. Russell sees a positive emerging from a difficult evaluation.

“They may find that there are degree programs being offered that could be merged on their own campuses or they could be offered in concert with other institutions and it might eventually then provide even better service for Missourians,” according to Russell.

Governor Nixon reached an agreement with public college presidents last year. In exchange for a promise to not raise tuition, the state would limit college budget cuts to five percent. Legislative leaders bristled at the agreement reached without their input, but upheld it anyway. No such agreement is likely to exist when lawmakers return to the Capitol next year to consider a new budget.

Russell says it will be difficult for colleges to prepare for deep budget cuts next year.

“We’ve been on this road now for several years,” Russell says. “The colleges have seen the cost of their operations going up steadily over this period. They’ve not had an opportunity to close part of that gap through tuition. Federal support has been helpful, but has been a temporary fix. They’re faced with some very significant challenges.”

Russell says college officials have told him they might not be able to hold the line on quality this time.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:25 MP3]