Public universities asking for an additional $72.4M

AROUND MISSISSIPPI — Mississippi’s eight public universities want an additional $72.4 million in budget year that starts in July 2014.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds told the College Board the schools need money to increase faculty salaries and cover pension contributions.

State money to universities will fall $32 million to $670 million in the 2013 budget year beginning this July 1. Writing the 2014 budget begins this fall, as legislative leaders consider requests.

Board projections call for using $14 million to pay increased state pension contributions. The Legislature paid the higher pension costs for many other agencies in the 2013 budget.

Up to $40 million more would go to increasing faculty salaries. Bounds says Mississippi university salaries have fallen further behind those in other southern states over the last decade.

In a separate item, Jackson State University will become the first of Mississippi’s public universities to waive out-of-state tuition for certain students.

The College Board voted to allow the school to cut rates. Groups that would benefit include military veterans and their relatives, high achievers from urban areas and students majoring in science, technology, engineering or math.

The Legislature enacted a law this year allowing universities to reduce tuition to in-state levels for some non-Mississippians. The schools had lobbied for the measure, saying that public colleges in other states were waiving charges for Mississippi students.

Starting this fall, JSU will charge $5,988 a year for undergraduate tuition for Mississippians and $14,676 for most out-of-state undergraduates.

Carolyn Meyers, the president of 8,900-student JSU, acknowledged that Mississippi taxpayers could be subsidizing the education of students from other states. But she said the move would bring benefits to the state.

“Part of that is diversity,” Meyers said, “The world is not Mississippi. We actually think the whole educational experience benefits from a diverse student body.”

Like other college leaders, she predicted some students attracted to Mississippi by the tuition break would stay once they graduate.

Jackson State presented specific financial projections to the College Board, but officials did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for a copy of the document. Meyers said she didn’t remember what the projections showed.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said tuition waivers have to be handled carefully.

“You really have to be careful about doing this, so you have to have pretty good data,” Bounds said. “It’s obviously going to affect your budget.”

But he said in some cases the waivers would fill classroom seats that would otherwise go empty. That can be a way for institutions to bring in more revenue without requiring them to hire more faculty or build new buildings. Tuition waivers might be most attractive to campuses struggling to meet enrollment goals, such as Delta State University or the Mississippi University for Women.

Waivers might be less attractive for the main campuses of the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, Bounds said. Enrollment at those campuses has climbed in recent years, meaning that new students could result in higher costs.

The University of Southern Mississippi was among the schools that pushed hardest for the measure, citing competition for students with the University of South Alabama. That school typically enrolls more than 400 new students from Mississippi each year. In 2010, it tried to set up a branch campus at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Gautier campus. The community college and USA backed off the plan under public pressure.

Aubrey Lucas, interim president at USM, said his school isn’t ready yet to discuss what it will propose, but it also intends to seek approval for a tuition waiver.

“We are making plans,” Lucas said.

Bounds said he expects waiver plans will be tailored to each school’s needs.

“I think most of them will bring forward a proposal,” Bounds said. “I don’t think any of them will look alike.”

 

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