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Students, students everywhere

Most universities challenged by increased enrollment

State higher education leaders are calling it a “good problem.” Preliminary fall enrollment is up from fall 2009, with several institutions reporting record numbers. Now, universities are challenged to accommodate all of the new students while facing ever shrinking state appropriations.
The State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) reports a system-wide increase of 4.1 percent compared to fall 2009. That represents more than 3,000 new students.
Only two of the state’s nine public universities reported an enrollment decrease. Mississippi Valley State University, after projecting a 2.5 percent increase, is actually down nearly 13 percent. At press time, an IHL team was evaluating Mississippi Valley’s financials, and Dr. Hank Bounds, state commissioner of higher education, said he could take action this week.
The other university reporting a loss is Jackson State (-1.1 percent).
On the other end of the spectrum, Alcorn State had the largest percentage increase at 10.4 percent. Alcorn’s director of admissions Emanuel Barnes said he believes that to be the largest jump in the school’s 140-year history.
Delta State had the second-highest increase at 7.3 percent, followed by the University of Mississippi at 7.1.
Mississippi State University (MSU) is serving more than 1,000 new students compared to the fall of 2009. Dr. Bill Kibler, vice president for student affairs, said the institution has never seen that many new students.
Now, university officials are scrambling to serve all of these new students. On-campus housing is suddenly at a premium at many institutions.
Alcorn added 300 on-campus units last year. Still, Dr. Gerald Peoples, vice president of student affairs, said the university could house maybe “five to 10 more students.”
Delta State housing was at 85 percent capacity, even with this month’s opening of the new Foundation Hall that contains 182 units and 362 beds.
Kibler said MSU had to “turn away hundreds of students” for lack of residential space, adding that another concern is whether campus dining services could accommodate the increase.
One challenge nearly all of the universities is facing is parking.
Looking for long-range solutions, MSU will host a public meeting Wednesday to give an overview of future campus development.
In the mean time, universities are dealing with slashed budgets.
But, Bounds is concerned that more draconian measures, such as those taken by the University of Southern Mississippi, (USM) may be in the offing.
Days before announcing a record enrollment of 17,254 students, USM, which is looking at a $15-million reduction in funding during the 2011-2012 academic year, said its was cutting more than two-dozen faculty members and eliminating five degrees. Employee furloughs and retirement incentives were also possible.
Bounds said continued cuts could “denigrate the product.” He said there are “different break points for different universities,” but at some point cuts will cut into quality.
“Students expect to earn a four-year degree that is meaningful and gives them the skill sets to obtain a good job. We have to be careful to not cut too deep,” Bounds said.
He said IHL has planned for the budget cuts so far. More drastic cuts could mean more drastic measures, however. Gov. Haley Barbour is already saying that the next budget debate could be the thorniest yet.
When asked if this could result in layoffs and program elimination like those at USM, Bounds said, “Yes, they could.”


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