LONG BEACH — After a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling last month, the University of Southern Mississippi is proceeding with expansion plans at its Gulf Park campus and will begin admitting freshmen this summer, around the same time Tulane University opens enrollment for its Biloxi satellite campus.
“The existence of a four-year university on the Gulf Coast will be a huge economic boost to the area as the student population grows,” said
Robert Ingram, executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at USM. “I hope the majority of freshman and sophomore enrollees will be students who would have left the coast and probably commuted to South Alabama, the University of New Orleans and other such nearby universities if the opportunity were not available on the coast. This will keep those dollars in the area, create more direct jobs on the Gulf Coast Southern Miss campus, and create indirect jobs in the community. The existence of a four-year university hopefully will also attract commuting students from other areas such as New Orleans and that region of Louisiana, bringing in additional new dollars.
“But the availability of a four-year university will also help in recruiting new companies to the coast and in helping existing business and industry hire and keep key employees.”
Michael J. Oliver, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said, “We have the second largest population base in the state and by that measure alone demands access to higher education opportunities. Although we have an excellent community college system that provides part of the equation, the rest of it needs to be fulfilled by other higher learning opportunities.”
The Supreme Court reversed a Hinds County chancery judge’s decision — in a lawsuit filed in December 1999 by community college supporters — that blocked USM’s plans to transform its Long Beach campus into a four-year institution with the addition of freshmen, and later, sophomores.
“The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College has not been the problem in this equation,” said Olivier. “The State Board (for Community and Junior Colleges) has been the problem.”
Dr. James Williams, vice president of the USM Gulf Coast campus, said, “I don’t think we could have asked for better community support and participation in the approval process.”
Pamela P. Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi Board of Trustees for the State Institutions of Higher Learning, said the board “is most pleased to have the recent Supreme Court decision on the USM Gulf Coast expansion.”
“The board will now proceed with USM to put in place the implementation of a plan that will permit a limited number of freshmen and sophomores to pursue their university degree as soon as funds are available,” she said. “Thanks to Lt. Governor Tuck, Rep. Diane Peranich and the members of the Legislative Budget Committee, there are funds in the fiscal year 2003 budget to begin the freshmen/sophomore expansion.”
USM is taking applications now at the 1,720-student Gulf Park campus at Long Beach, established in 1972, for the 60 to 70 freshmen slots. Before the ruling, 47 applications were on file.
“We’re receiving applications for new students every day,” said Shelia White, spokesperson for USM Gulf Coast.
The original five-year plan called for 150 new students each year, with a maximum of 750 students. Because of budget cuts, from $600,000 to $236,000, the number of new students allowed has been significantly reduced.
“The proposed budget right now is for $250,000 for next year, so we have to move gradually,” said Williams.
Ingram said the four-year campus’ value to the Gulf Coast will be greatly dependent on available public and private funds.
“A strong commitment to funding scholarships, endowing professorships and chairs, enhancing the library collections and other such things would send a strong message to the Mississippi Legislature that the Gulf Coast citizens and business community are committed to the success of USM’s Gulf Coast campus,” he said. “Great universities are true public/private partnerships, often with less than 40% of total funds coming from state government.”
Olivier said the business community would pitch in to help USM, which is in the middle of a capital campaign.
“Otherwise, USM will not be able to generate huge numbers because it won’t have the resources to meet those numbers,” he said.
A $13.3-million construction project is nearing completion of a new Advanced Education Center and Library at the Gulf Park campus. The new three-story 50,681 foot education center, already in use, includes wired classrooms and other amenities. The new library is a three-story, 54,236 square foot facility with a computer lab and other features.
Hospitality management, nursing and teacher education programs have been among the most popular programs at the commuter campus. Among the new course offerings: English, mathematics, history, biology, computer science and statistics, philosophy, sociology, political science and psychology. By the end of the summer, about five new faculty members will be added to the 67 already on staff.
Michael Tonos, owner of JMT Consulting in Gulfport, who has been commuting to graduate school at USM’s main campus in Hattiesburg, said the expansion came too late for his studies, but added, “Hopefully, it opens up teaching opportunities down the road.”
Tulane’s University College will open Aug. 28 for classes at its new campus, located at Edgewater Mall.
“The board finds Tulane’s interest in Mississippi another positive for our state in that Tulane will bring quality programs for our citizens,” Smith said. “Access to quality education so that one can advance is what it is all about.”
Olivier said the business community is anxious to see both universities provide continuing education programs, including computer courses, and management programs for the coast’s 17,000-employee casino industry.
“That’s what drove Tulane to come into this market,” Olivier said. “This is way beyond dealing cards. The casino industry has a number of unique applications that could be taught.”
Willis H. Lott, Ed.D., president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said Tulane and USM expansions are good for business development on the Coast.
“We needed more degree opportunities,” Lott said.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is located less than 10 miles from USM’s Gulf Park campus and about eight miles from the Tulane branch.
About 61% of all students in higher education in Mississippi — both public and private — attend one of the state’s 15 community colleges. About 76% of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s credit students are university transfer students. The other 24% are either career or technical program students, Lott said.
“We’ll continue to work with USM Gulf Coast on an articulation agreement,” said Lott. “It appears we’re going to be able to finalize a financial aid consortium with USM that will maximize the financial aid a student co-enrolled at USM Gulf Coast and the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College has available and to be able to count all the hours they’re taking to maximize their load so they aren’t counted as part-time students.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com</a.