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Mississippi universities a bargain compared to neighboring states

Higher ed tuition hikes needed to maintain quality

Even though college students and their families are bracing for higher tuition costs at the state’s eight public universities, Mississippi higher education remains a very good value, say business leaders and professors.

“Nobody ever likes to raise tuition, but it’s one of those necessary things that must be done if you’re going to keep the university system moving forward,” said Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, who lived in Delaware and Florida before moving to the Magnolia State in 1998. “We still have very competitively priced universities and we want to make sure they keep their edge.”

By comparison, tuition at the University of Delaware for the 2003-04 academic year, the most recent reporting period for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), shot up 12.8% to $6,498 to cover state budget shortfalls, higher health insurance costs and higher utility costs. Florida lawmakers cut state appropriations for public universities by $40 million for the same academic year and directed the schools to increase tuition 8.5% for in-state undergraduates because of budget woes and lowered revenue projections stemming from tax cuts and higher costs. The average in-state tuition for Florida’s 11 public universities in the 2002-03 academic year was $2,691.

“Almost every state is going through the same thing,” said Joe Farris, assistant to Mississippi State University (MSU) president Charles Lee. “Revenue from increased tuition is critical to state universities because state funding has gone down several years in a row. We’re beginning this fiscal year with $5.7 million less than in 2000, so that represents a pretty steady decline. And even though we have less state money, our costs have increased. For example, employee health insurance premiums cost $500,000 more this year at the same time we’re losing $500,000 in state support. That’s a $1- million shift right there.”

The Board of Trustees of Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) recently approved tuition increases at the state’s public universities ranging from 3.2% at Jackson State University (JSU) to 5.6% at the Mississippi University for Women (MUW). Alcorn State University, Delta State University, MSU, Mississippi Valley State University, University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi (USM) received across-the-board tuition increases of 5%.

The IHL cited rising fixed costs, such as utilities, employee retirement contributions, employer insurance, tort and workers’ compensation premiums among the expenses driving the tuition increases.

“I don’t want to say the tuition increase has a negligible impact,” said Farris. “First of all, we’re talking a difference in tuition of $206 spread over the course of a year. When you’re looking at the total cost of attendance, taking into account the books, supplies, transportation and room and board, $206 in the scheme of things may not alter the equation that much. However, we need to be more cognizant of letting students know all the financial resources available to help them cover educational expenses.”

Tuition at Auburn University rose 17% to $4,426 for the 2003-04 school year “because student demand continues to be high, and tuition and fees trail peer institutions in the region,” according to the NASULGC. In 2001, Louisiana lawmakers voted to allow Louisiana State University to increase its tuition 3% annually for three years and to allow public institutions to increase the Academic Excellence Fee by $120 per semester for full-time students.

“Inevitably, when polling organizations ask people how much it costs to go to college, they usually estimate too high,” said Farris. “Every year, we have a big spate of stories about the rising cost of college, and the national media starts off with the most prestigious private institutions. That’s beside the point when you’re talking about public education in Mississippi.”

Even with the new tuition increases, MUW students will pay $3,690, and JSU students will pay $3,962 for the next academic year.

Dr. Jean Claude Assad, director of graduate programs for the JSU College of Business, called it “a bargain, even when comparing the cost here to the cost of other (private) colleges in the metropolitan area.”

Several years ago, Tennessee lawmakers took drastic action by cutting off $15 million in state support to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The move led to employee layoffs, hiring and travel freezes, deferral of maintenance and construction and enrollment caps. As a result, tuition increased 9.7% to $4,450 for the next academic year.

“We’ve been in a five-year mode with steady increases and we’ve seen enrollment go up, so there doesn’t seem to be a relationship between the increased cost and attendance,” said Dr. Joe Paul, vice president of student affairs at USM. “But it obviously burdens the students and their families.

Students paying their own way may have to increase working 15 hours a week to 20. Those are challenges. But we hear consistently that students and their families don’t want to compromise their education. We wouldn’t want to dramatically increase class size, or decrease the size of the faculty or the number of academic offerings.”

Dr. Pam Smith, president of the Mississippi Council on Economic Education, said she “supports the development of human capital through as much education as a person can possibly attain. While the decision makers never take tuition increases lightly, the price of a college education is still a bargain and one that people cannot afford to do without.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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