By Elizabeth Crisp/The Clarion-Ledger
JACKSON — Mississippi spends an additional $1,200 on each student at Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women compared with those at Jackson State University and the University of Mississippi.
The funding shows the state is not distributing money equally among students at the eight public universities.
Faced with such growing gaps in per-student allocations, state College Board members say they are ready to again consider changing the formula for distributing state dollars to universities.
Blocking them, however, is language the Legislature has placed into appropriations bills each year since a formula proposed in 2008 sparked at least one campus protest and concern from lawmakers.
“I have great concern whether it’s just a back-handed form of management. Front-handed, actually,” board member Amy Whitten said.
The state spends about $5,540 on each Valley State student and $5,362 on those at MUW.
JSU gets $4,202 per student and Ole Miss receives $4,247, based on current enrollment figures and fiscal 2012 allocations.
Other schools fall between those figures.
Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said he often hears from faculty, students and alumni who are concerned the university is not getting its fair share.
“It’s of significant interest,” he said. “There needs to be something done to bring some balance.”
The College Board adopted a new funding formula three years ago that would have shifted millions among the universities and given Ole Miss and others at the lower funding levels a bigger piece of the pie.
Each appropriation bill since 2009 has stipulated funding must fall under the old formula.
Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said he thinks that heading into the 2012 legislative session will be a good time to review the policies and propose a new formula.
“It won’t be easy, and it wasn’t easy the last time we tried to deal with this,” board member Aubrey Patterson said. “Freezing it makes no sense, logically.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, agrees next year will be a good opportunity to discuss the way money is distributed.
“We want to make sure all eight are funded fairly,” he said. “Because of the statute that creates the College Board, we are limited, as legislators, as to how much we can protect the regional universities.”
Supporters of a new formula say the current method is not fair and fails to address enrollment growth or decline.
The proposed formula switch, however, has faced criticism from some universities’ alumni and state legislators, who say it places an unfair burden on smaller schools that do not have other resources to turn to.
Five schools — MUW, Valley State, Alcorn State University, Delta State University and the University of Southern Mississippi — would receive lower yearly allocations.
Meanwhile, the state’s two largest universities — Ole Miss and Mississippi State University — would get more, as would Jackson State, the largest of the three historically black colleges.
Davis said there is continued concern over the formula.
“I don’t think it’s a distrust,” he said. “We are just trying to ensure that as cuts are made they are as fair as possible.”
The current formula was adopted in the 1990s. It designates certain percentages of the state allocation go to each school, but some schools’ growth has outpaced others since then, creating a divide.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State have seen the fastest growth in recent years.
“We are receiving significantly less per student than other schools,” Jones said. “And the disparity is growing.”
Board members said it makes no sense to continue that trend.
“Continuing to do it is going to be good for some schools and bad for some schools, but it’s not particularly rational,” board member Alan Perry said. “It’s a bad way to run the institutions.”
Whitten said the legislative stipulation blocking the new funding formula from being used “basically takes away any authority we have to allocate” funds.
“I don’t think we should live with this language year after year,” she said.
Davis said he doesn’t see it as usurping the board’s authority because the legislation references a formula developed by and carried out by the board for years.
“We’re just giving them directions to do what they did last year,” he said. “The Legislature should have the ability to set priorities for where the funds go.”
In addition to enrollment, the formula proposed in 2008 also placed additional emphasis on the state’s four research universities – Ole Miss, MSU, USM and JSU.
The argument was that their courses cost more to offer than ones at the other four regional universities.
Board member Bob Owens said the board should consider a formula that’s “not just equal, but fair.”
“We have to look at the small schools,” he said.
Davis said that’s also his concern.
“A 2 to 3 percent cut at MUW is much more significant than a 2 to 3 percent cut at Mississippi State,” he said. “Mississippi State has much more resources and means to cover that than The W does.”
Working from 2008 numbers that were presented at the initial proposal, DSU would stand to lose the most in annual state funding at more than $5 million, and state dollars for MUW would drop by at least $4 million.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss would reap a $10 million windfall, and MSU would gain $4.5 million in yearly funding.
As the leader of the university with the most to gain from the formula, Jones said he understands the process needs to be fair.
“Identifying what’s fair in this system is very difficult,” he said, noting the state’s history of underfunding its historically black universities. “The conversations are very complicated.”
Still, he said that includes fairness to Ole Miss.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com