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Tuition increases not enough to stem the tide from tough economic times across the country

State’s large universities becoming more efficient

The state’s four large public universities are tightening their belts as they face mandated budget cuts and fallout from the bad economy. Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi are carefully scrutinizing their financial matters while maintaining academic standards.

“The JSU community is doing its best to weather the storm,” said Jackson State president Dr. Ronald Mason Jr. “The fact that we have been in a transitional mode and that the Ayers programs are under funded have increased our challenges due to a lack of reserves.”

He said JSU has frozen all but emergency expenditures, including new hires and that any additional cuts may affect current employees’ salaries or jobs.

“Since we started planning over a year ago for a more streamlined operation, JSU should ultimately be better in the long run,” Mason added.

Southern Mississippi chief financial officer Joe Morgan says the five percent budget cut along with a shortfall in funding from sales tax receipts is making an impact on the university’s budget.

“Extrapolating this over a year, we anticipate a shortfall of approximately $1.25 million from sales tax in addition to the five percent cut from the general appropriation,” he said. “In total, we will receive approximately $5.75 million less from state funding than we budgeted for fiscal year 2009 which represents approximately six percent of the total budget.”

The Hattiesburg-based institution implemented a hiring freeze last fall along with a spending freeze on travel, equipment, supplies and contractual services.

“Except for vitally necessary travel, equipment, supplies, services and personnel, we are not spending from these budgets for the remainder of the year,” Morgan said. “These limits to spending and the freeze on hiring will allow Southern Miss to meet the current year cut to the budget without incurring any layoffs.”

Mark Keenum assumed the presidency of Mississippi State University last month and hit the ground running to deal with the five percent budget cut as mandated by the governor. “We’re dealing with it as best we can. With this fiscal year ending June 30, a cut of that magnitude at this time is tantamount to a 10 percent cut,” he said.

To deal with that cut, the university is exploring ways to operate more efficiently, delaying some maintenance projects and the procurement of certain items, and is placing a hold on hiring administrative positions.

“We’re reviewing hiring for all other positions and tightening our belts to get the best efficiencies we can,” Keenum said. “We want to have the least impact on personnel that we can.”

Asked about tuition increases, all the university spokesmen said that call would come from the State Institutions of Hiring Learning’s board of trustees.

“Keep in mind when budgets are reduced and our expenses keep rising, we must have some flexibility to keep operating,” Keenum said.

The new MSU president said last fall’s freshmen class was a record enrollment and this semester’s enrollment is ahead of where the enrollment was at this time last year. “We’re very encouraged with the continued interest in Mississippi State University and look forward to a bright future,” he added.

At the University of Mississippi, vice chancellor for administration and finance Larry Sparks sees this latest economic downturn as different from others the university has weathered.

“We expect ups and downs in the economy in public higher education; it’s just part of it,” he said. “Sometimes in downturns, there’s an increase in the demand for higher education as people confront job losses and look for new skills. For the first time in my memory, we now have an economic downturn and also a downturn in loan programs guaranteed by the federal government.”

He predicts the change in loan programs will mean fewer people can afford to attend universities.

Ole Miss had a $1.8-million cut in the state-mandated budget reduction in November and $2.7 in the most recently announced reduction. “No one talks about the education enhancement funds,” Sparks said, “and the good part is those funds count for about $10 million in our $91-million appropriation. But, those funds have not been coming in as much from July to December.”

Like the other large universities, Ole Miss is becoming more efficient and cutting as many positions as possible. “We’re also looking at revenue streams and reallocating some,” he said. “We’ve removed some scholarships from the central budget.”

Noting that the university’s number one source of revenue is student tuition and fees, Sparks feels this is not the time to raise tuition while families are having a tough time paying for education. There has been a steady increase in the national trend of universities raising a larger percentage of revenue from tuition, he pointed out. In 1979, some 64.7 percent of core operations were funded by state appropriations. That percentage of state-appropriated funding is now 34.7 percent.

“We’re still in the planning stage as to cutting personnel and programs. We’ve been able to keep our heads above water by cutting some services and not filling vacant positions,” he said. “The next level of cuts will be harder.”

Sparks said Ole Miss will keep a positive attitude and look at the belt tightening as an opportunity that should be done on a continuing basis. “Let’s approach it that way instead of dreading it,” he said. “We’ll come out a stronger institution. We’ve been here 160 years and are not going away.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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