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Can state universities sustain another $48 million in budget cuts?

Mississippi leads pack in higher ed funding cuts

Can higher education in Mississippi, which has lost steam in recent years due to funding cutbacks, take another major hit?

A recent national report shows that for the two-year time period of fiscal year FY2001 and FY2002, Mississippi’s higher education was cut 7.7%, the greatest cut of any of the 50 states. That makes the impact of an estimated $48 million in cuts for FY2004 especially sobering

The report on state tax funds for operating expenses of higher education shows that Mississippi cut appropriations in higher education more than 47 other states in 2002. In fact, on average funding for higher education increased an average of 4.6 in the 50 states in fiscal 2002. In contrast, Mississippi’s funding for fiscal 2002 declined 2.2%.

In FY2002 states contiguous to Mississippi show increases in state tax appropriations for higher education as follows: Alabama 2.5%; Arkansas 2.6%; Louisiana, 13.4%; and Tennessee, 2.5%.

“Most states have found a way to increase higher education funding in recent years while Mississippi higher education has been cut,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Tom Layzell. “Without the budget contingency funds the last two years, Mississippi higher education would be in far worse shape. We are very concerned about the fiscal year 2004 budget situation and appreciate the governor’s and the legislative leadership’s interest in a long-term funding plan for education.”

Some state business leaders are lobbying the Legislature to come up with a long-term plan for funding higher education, including some type of earmarking of funds for education. Walter D. Becker Jr., CCIM, owner of Commercial Real Estate Services Inc., Jackson and past chairman of the Institutions for Higher Learning Inter-Alumni Council, said it will take alumni, the general public and the business community working together to lobby the Legislature to provide adequate funding for higher education.

Funding for higher education in Mississippi has been a roller coaster ride, Becker said.

“You cannot achieve long-term excellence when you are zig-zagging up and down,” Becker said. “You cannot get a program going and then all of a sudden the funds are not there for the next year.”

The setbacks in higher education could equate to a weaker economy in Mississippi.

“Basically if you are not turning out quality graduates, it affects the quality of the employees that our firms are hiring,” Becker said. “It all revolves around quality. When you cut funding for higher education, you’re cutting our quality of education. And you are cutting the quality of the future workforce. If you have poor quality employees, it does not equate to the best production for our businesses. It would benefit the business community of Mississippi to support adequate funding for education like they have supported it in the past. If you are turning out a better product in Mississippi, you have better workers.”

The Inter-Alumni Council, made up of representatives from the eight universities, recommends earmarking of funds for education. Becker says that when voters were asked to legalize liquor in Mississippi, they were promised it would help education. But funds weren’t earmarked. And when the economy went down, funding for education was cut. The same scenario developed with legalizing gaming. Voters were asked to legalize gaming in order to improve education.

“Again, they didn’t earmark the funds,” Becker said. “We voted in gaming on the backs of education, and the same thing happened again. When the economy went down, they cut education. What we have recommended in the Alumni Council is that the presidents of the universities go to the Legislature, with the support of the general public, to earmark funds for education to stop the increased cuts. We made a recommendation that they concentrate on earmarking funds to stop the roller coaster ride so universities know the amount of money they have this year, next year. They can budget around it, and not have to live with the ups and downs of our economy.”

A good educational system helps attract industry to Mississippi. In the past it has sometimes hurt Mississippi because its educational system, particularly K-12, has not been up to the standards of industry when Mississippi is compared to other states.

“So if we get our education stabilized and look at long-range planning, a lot of things can be accomplished,” Becker said.

Becker believes it is important that the business community and general public lead the charge for better funding of education. When community college or university leaders go to the Legislature to ask for funding, the Legislature sees them as employees.

“The Legislature says, ‘We hire you and pay your salary. You work for us,’” Becker said. “There is an employee-employer relationship. Consequently, the Legislature doesn’t pay as much attention to these people as they should. They aren’t in a position to put pressure on the Legislature. The people of Mississippi are the ones who need to get involved for better education in Mississippi. People can get their attention.

“The business community should realize you shouldn’t have an employee putting pressure on an employer. The business community could do some good trying to educate our Legislature about the importance of earmarking funds for education. You lose money when you start a program and then have to stop in midstream because there is no personnel and funding to continue it.”

In the mid-1980s when colleges and universities were experiencing a similar funding crisis, business leaders launched an organization called the Council for Support of Public Higher Education in Mississippi. Later the name was changed to the Council for Support of Public Education. That effort was credited with having a big impact on improving education for Mississippi.

Linda Ross Aldy with Aldy and Company, a consulting and public relations firm in Madison, served as executive director of the Council For Support of Public Education. She believes the business community could once again make a critical difference in the issue.

“I think it would be wonderful if the business community led the rally for stabilized funding for all of the state supported educational organizations K through the universities,” Aldy said. “I think it is going to take all sorts of groups working together to make sure that funding for education is stabilized. And I think that stabilization is critical. I believe it is going to be the foundation for the future of this state. I would be thrilled to see the business community step forward and take a leadership role.”

Aldy said a lot of the issues today are the same as those faced in the mid-1980s, but today people are more aware of the funding problems than they were back in the 1980s.

Long-term, the impacts of continuing cuts in higher education could weaken the quality of Mississippi’s workforce.

“The better quality person I have to apply for jobs, the better my business is,” said Hamp Dye, director of administration for Frazer Davidson P.A., attorneys at law, Jackson. “The majority of people I interview are from state schools. Sometimes people don’t have the skills or experience I need. So they lose out, and I lose out. The better the education is, the better the pool of candidates I have to work with. Finding good candidates is important.”

Dye, a graduate of Ole Miss, said another issue is keeping the better students in state. In the past, often the brightest students would leave Mississippi. That started turning around when higher education picked up steam and the state saw jobs growth in the telecommunications and technology industries.

Now things are headed the other way. Besides losing bright students, the state is losing intellectual capi
tal
in the form of an exodus of experienced and talented professors who are unhappy with lower-than-average s

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