University Funding Cuts Prompt Talk of Tuition Hikes, Consolidation | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

University Funding Cuts Prompt Talk of Tuition Hikes, Consolidation

IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce told lawmakers on Monday that it is getting difficult for Mississippi's public universities to keep faculty members when colleges and universities in other states can pay them more.

IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce told lawmakers on Monday that it is getting difficult for Mississippi's public universities to keep faculty members when colleges and universities in other states can pay them more. Photo by Stephen Wilson.

— Most of the state's public university and college presidents crowded into the Mississippi House of Representatives' appropriations room on Monday with a united message.

"Without having both enhanced resources from state appropriations and some additional investment and cost-of-attendance from parents and families, our longstanding efforts to provide Mississippi students with a high-quality, competitive education will erode," University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett told lawmakers. "This is not a fantasy rooted in theatrics."

Since fiscal-year 2016, lawmakers have cut the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning budget by just over $107 million. Commissioner Glenn Boyce acknowledged the enhanced appropriations the Legislature provided back in 2016 to fund faculty raises. Without continued funding, however, Boyce said those raises are challenging.

"One of the issues we face is giving our faculty raises, but along with that unfortunately came a series of cuts, and those cuts put the burden of those raises back on us in a much more significant way," he said.

On average, tuition to Mississippi public colleges and universities is the lowest in the region, at a $7,403 average for fiscal-year 2018. The closest state, Arkansas, averages $7,596 for tuition. Boyce said IHL is doing everything possible to keep tuition low.

"We are also cognizant of what our household incomes are. We understand that we have a lot of poor homes, and we understand that we need great access in the state of Mississippi because as I mentioned, competition is the keynote for the future," Boyce said. "Our students have to graduate, but in order to complete, they have to have access."

The state has reached an all-time high of 95,000 students in its public college and university system, but the gap between that increase and the funding necessary to keep faculty and high-achieving students from leaving continues to widen.

"Several of our schools are within 90 miles of the University of Alabama," Boyce said. "It's a tough situation when you have a great faculty member who can drive 90 miles, land at a new place and get a 19 percent raise."

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, pointed out that Mississippi has eight public colleges and universities, and asked why.

"Is there any means of some level of consolidation? Do we need eight Institutions of Higher Learning? ... Or should we be looking into something ... to consolidate?" Busby asked.

Commissioner Boyce said consolidation is not a conversation IHL or the Board of Trustees is having.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, warned against the consolidation idea.

"In 1988, I voted to close MUW and the Valley, and it ain't pretty," he said. "Nobody in Mississippi wants that—I'm just telling you."

The state's public colleges and universities are asking the Legislature to restore their fiscal-year 2016 funding levels up to $773 million. Currently, IHL is operating on a $667-million budget.

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her tweets from the Capitol @arielle_amara.

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