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Record numbers of students in state off to college this fall

If there is a silver lining in the dark- cloud economy, it may be that record numbers of students in Mississippi are attending college this fall.

“All the reports indicate enrollment will be up at almost all of the colleges,” said Dr. Wayne Stonecypher, executive director for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges (SBCJC). “Traditionally when you see unemployment go up and the economy turns sour, you tend to see an increase in enrollment for community and junior colleges. People have lost jobs or are concerned about losing jobs and want to enhance their educational background.”

The economic crunch also makes the community colleges more attractive as tuition is much lower than at four year institutions.

Stonecypher said it is not just the current economic downturn sending students back to school in droves. In 1990 45% of jobs required some education past high school and 20% required a college degree. By 2000 the number of jobs that required some kind of college degree was still at 20%, but the number of jobs that required some education past high school went from 45% to 65%. That means that now 85% of today’s jobs require some post high school education.

Since 2000, the community and junior college enrollment has increased 20%. Final numbers aren’t in for this year, but the SBCJC reported enrollment of 62,649 in the fall of 2002.

Stonecypher said enrollment on the Gulf Coast is up, and East Mississippi, Jones County Junior College and Co-Lin Community College have all seen strong growth.

Most of the state’s four-year colleges have seen record enrollments this fall, with the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) becoming the state’s largest university. Colleges seeing record enrollment increases include Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University, University of Mississippi (UM) and USM.

“This is the eighth consecutive year of record enrollment increases for the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) system,” said Dr. Pamela Smith, public affairs officer for the commissioner of higher learning. “Enrollment is up in part because more people realize that a degree is necessary in today’s global, knowledge-based economy. About 85% of the new jobs that will become available in the next 10 to 15 years require at least some college. The good jobs attract degreed people. The economy is also part of the reason that enrollment is up — when people cannot find work, they go back to school.”

Another factor is financial aid. An estimated 89% of the first-time freshmen at the universities receive financial aid. Nationally, the average is 76%. Smith said financial aid makes a big difference in attending a university and people should investigate to see if they qualify.

Record enrollment can strain facilities and staff, but Smith said the colleges have managed to accommodate all the students.

“UM had some challenges finding space in the women’s residence halls and faculty are at a premium because of enrollment and budget cuts,” Smith said. “We may have more adjunct faculty at some institutions.”

USM president Shelby Thames said it is exciting to realize that so many students have selected Southern Miss as their university of choice.

“It is important that we continue to grow our student body,” Thames said. “The revenue created from student tuition is helping to stabilize our budget. Despite this record-breaking student growth, we remain within our service capabilities. We are meeting student needs in housing, and we are better utilizing classroom space and instructional resources, allowing for better efficiency in the delivery of services. We had 2,227 students on the Gulf Coast. This area continues to grow, and we will grow with it, helping to educate both the traditional and professional student.”

UM is up 661 students at the Oxford campus to a total of 12,833, which represents a 5.4% increase from 2002. The Oxford campus enrollment topped 12,000 for the first time in the fall of 2002.

Fall 2003 enrollment on the Oxford campus includes increases in undergraduate enrollment in the accountancy (12.3%), applied science (23.9%), business administration (5.6%), education (1.3%), law (8.5%), pharmacy (12.9%), and the liberal arts (5.1%).

Enrollment rose on other UM campuses. Tupelo was up 12.4%, Southaven was up 29.5%, and the University Medical Center was up 6%, bringing total UM enrollment to 15,956, representing an increase of 996 students, or 6.7%, on all campuses.

University officials anticipated the enrollment increase and added faculty before the semester began. The College of Liberal Arts, the largest academic unit, added many new sections in mathematics, English, history, astronomy and other areas, said dean Glenn Hopkins.

“When all the numbers are in, we expect this class to be even better than last year’s in the number of new students from Mississippi, the size of the first-year class, the degree of diversity and the number of National Merit and Achievement Scholars,” said UM admissions director Beckett Howorth. “It’s great to see that students are continuing to recognize the high value of a University of Mississippi education. It’s an exciting time to be at Ole Miss.”

Although Mississippi State was the only one of the largest three universities to not show an enrollment increase, MSU isn’t far behind USM with total enrollment of 16,236. The newcomers include about 1,700 first-time freshmen, almost 1,500 transfer students and almost 800 new graduate students.

Enrollment on the main campus in Starkville totals 15,426, while 723 students are attending classes at the Meridian Campus. The remainder are studying at graduate centers in Vicksburg and at Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis. The statewide headcount is down by 374 from last fall.

Total enrollment is down slightly from last year for a combination of reasons, said Jimmy Abraham, interim vice president for student affairs.

“The biggest difference from last year is in the number of returning students, which is affected by the fact that we’ve just had two unusually large graduating classes,” Abraham said. “We’ve averaged awarding more than 3,700 degrees for each of the past two years, up by more than 400 from 2000-01.”

He said new restrictions on international students have slowed admissions in that category, and most of the students called to active duty in the military last year for service in the Middle East have not yet returned to school.

“This is also our third consecutive freshman class in the 1,700 to 1,800 range, down from a peak of about 2,000 students in fall 2000,” Abraham said. “That may be partly the result of some perception that MSU is interested in only the most academically talented students, but in fact we welcome all qualified students. We’re proud of our students’ academic credentials, but we’re trying to make it very clear that the People’s University offers great opportunities in leadership development and in academics for students of a wide range of abilities.

“Our research shows that students who have good high school grades tend to do extremely well at the university, regardless of ACT scores, and we are placing great emphasis on mentoring, academic advising and support programs to help students succeed. Those efforts are proving to be effective, as indicated by our rising retention and graduation rates.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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