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The question comes to mind after word that Missouri Western State University is trimming 35 positions.

If higher education was a stock, would you buy, sell or hold?

Those who teach in a university environment would be appalled at such a materialistic, almost crass assessment of higher education’s value. We understand there’s more to it than dollars and cents.

We also understand that any college, including Missouri Western, faces significant challenges on the financial side of the ledger. Like other public universities, Western’s state funding remained flat amid ongoing pressure to maintain services, offer bells and whistles to incoming students and hold the line on tuition increases. Western’s state appropriation increased 1 percent from its level five years ago and 8 percent from its allotment in 2005.

Something had to give. Western already approved a 5 percent tuition hike in the spring, more than the rate of inflation but less than what the legislature decided to allow. Now the university is cutting 35 positions, though the actual number of layoffs is smaller because of unfilled jobs or employees who are able to move into other roles.

Western isn’t the only university facing tough choices. In Columbia, the University of Missouri cut 12 graduate programs and eliminated 185 jobs last year, a bitter pill for the state’s flagship university.

It won’t get any easier for higher education, with demographic trends showing a thinning pool of college-age students as fertility rates decline. Bill Conley, vice president of enrollment management at Bucknell University, summed it up this way in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “If they weren’t born, they aren’t going to college.” Enrollment was down 6 percent at Western this fall, a possible canary in the mine shaft.

What Missouri Western and other universities still have going for them is the consensus that a college education remains essential for both quality of life and earnings potential over that lifetime. The key will be reaching out to both immigrant communities and international students and getting more students to graduate without crushing debt.

In a small way, these cuts might represent a move in that direction because they signal a willingness to narrow the university’s focus and look at alternatives to tuition hikes as a first resort. It also shows that the university will not wait for the Missouri General Assembly to provide a significant boost in funding, an unrealistic dream given past trends.

Viewed as a stock, Western might still be considered a value rather than a growth proposition. These cuts, though tough to swallow, only enhance that.