Universities brace for cuts in funding

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Daily Journal
TUPELO – The leader of Mississippi’s public universities says those institutions will look different a couple years from now.
Hank Bounds, state commissioner of higher education, told the Daily Journal editorial board Thursday that dramatic cuts in state funding will result in larger class sizes and fewer sections of many courses being offered.
Tuition already has been raised at all eight of the state’s public universities for the next two years, and Bounds said room and board costs would likely increase as well.
The changes in universities and increased fees are the result of projections that higher education may receive as much as a 25 percent reduction in funding for the 2011-12 school year compared to what was appropriated at the beginning of the current year.
That would mean a reduction of $35.7 million of funding at Mississippi State University and $30.5 million at the University of Mississippi. Statewide, it would be $45 million less than universities received in 2000.
“In 2012, I predict we will be spending $1,000 less per student than we did 12 years earlier,” Bounds said.
Bounds said the cuts to education in general – including those to K-12 school districts and to community colleges – could eventually be severe enough to create public support for tax increases.
Bounds, who was formerly state superintendent for K-12 schools, said those districts could see an elimination of some athletic and arts programs and that as many as 25 to 30 districts could go bankrupt. He said the public being against tax increases “will change if something pushes up against it.”
One impact for university students is that it could take longer for students to graduate. As more than 1,000 sections of courses are cut statewide, students who are working and going to school may have a more difficult time finding flexible class times to fit their schedules.
Those students also may have more competition to get into their desired section, as many universities try to attract more students to bring in money to help offset funding cuts. The number of applications sent to Mississippi universities and the number of students accepted this year is “significantly higher” than it was last year, Bounds said.
Many programs and departments also will be combined to save on administrative costs. Bounds said that a funding cut as severe as 25 percent will require a loss of jobs, although schools will try to reduce the number of staff who need to be laid off by not replacing many employees who retire or leave.
Programs will not be cut equally. For one, Bounds does not want to cut the best programs so that everything becomes mediocre. He also does not want to see the universities sustain so much “irreparable damage” from the recession that it takes them years to recover.
“If you cut every department or school by 25 percent, you would have a lot of mediocrity everywhere,” Bounds said. “If school A (on a university campus) is growing exponentially and school B is declining and you cut both the same, you are essentially punishing school A.”
Some expensive programs, like nursing and engineering, must be funded because the state badly needs graduates in those areas. Other fields vital to the state include education, social work and technology, Bounds said.
Bounds said that there will also be cooperation among universities in attempts to save money. For instance, Mississippi University for Women will outsource some of its back-office services to Mississippi State. Bounds said the amount of money that move will save will be announced soon and that it will be large. He said other schools could follow similar models.