State’s ‘Little 4’ universities still fighting funding woes

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Published: February 9,2009

The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) board is responsible for the policy and oversight of Mississippi’s eight public universities, funding projects to improve the education, research and enrollment at Mississippi colleges. Earlier this month, members of the IHL board and Mississippi’s eight institutional executive officers met with members of the full House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Sub-committee to discuss the budgetary needs of Mississippi’s public university system.

Amy Whitten, board president, and Aubrey Patterson, the board’s chair of the Budget, Finance, and Audit committee, discussed with both groups the system’s funding request, specifically the board’s five year framework. Originally, the board requested $71.4 million from the Legislature for classroom instruction and general campus operations. This request helped the system quickly reach the regional average, but the board decided the number was unrealistic in today’s economy. Rather than making this giant step in one year, the board projected where the system would need to be in five years and divided that amount equally over a five year period. Specifically, instead of requesting the original $71 million this year, the board is requesting $33.3 million annually each year over the next five years to take the system to the regional average.

While planning budgets last spring, state college administrators were painfully aware of the challenges that the IHL “rebalancing” of state appropriations would bring to their campuses. But even then, few anticipated what the national economic crisis and the subsequent impact that crisis would have on the state budget this year. On top of reduced funding to state colleges and universities, an across-the-board five percent budget cut is also causing administrators to come up with some creative ways of budgeting their funds.

“The old funding model simply didn’t take into consideration the performance, in terms of enrollment, of each school,” explained Linda McFall, deputy commissioner for finance and administration of IHL. “Whether a school had an increase or decrease in enrollment, the amount they received remained the same. Under the new model, schools may initially receive less, and it may appear to be out of balance when compared to their peers, but in time, it will balance out as schools recruit and retain students.” McFall explained that the new five-year framework will make it easier for legislators, schools, parents and students to better control the tuition so that everyone will know what to expect.

Dr. Michelle Roberts, vice president of university relations at Delta State University, said that a few weeks ago they heard from one of IHL’s assistant commissioners that the funding formula was on hold while the state was dealing with budget issues.

Yet, schools still have to adjust to the bad economy and lack of funding from IHL. To address the recent budget cuts from the Governor’s Office, Delta State has implemented temporary funding reduction measures to get them through the rest of the academic year (through June).

At the Mississippi University for Women, budget cuts will help close the gap. The school closed early for winter break, for a $10,000 utility savings. A reduction in lab hours, delay in hiring and reduction of travel and commodities has also been implemented.

Because tuition is one of the two main funding sources for Delta State’s budget (the other is state funding), it is important that the school administrators focus on enrollment in order to continue providing high quality education for their students. Currently at Delta State, enrollment is stable.

Spring enrollment at MUW is up four percent over last spring. “ The upturn can be attributed to the university’s effort to provide better access to higher education through the creation of new online and certificate programs and renewed emphasis on retention efforts of currently enrolled students, according to Dr. Bucky Wesley, vice president for student services.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Susan Marquez at larssue@aol.com .

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