OUR OPINION: University trustees seek major funding increase

Mississippi’s public universities’ board of trustees voted Friday to seek a $76.3 million increase in state funding for the eight universities when the Legislature gathers in January 2015 to write the fiscal 2016 budget.

The request is a 10.2 percent increase, if granted, over the funding they will receive in the 2015 budget year, which begins today. Mississippi’s budget cycle runs from July 1 to June 30.

It sounds like a lot, but Mississippi’s universities still are recovering from years of state funding cuts and a dramatic decline in the percentage of their budgets that comes from the state.

The trustees, more widely called the College Board, have no control over the universities’ revenue except to approve tuition and fees increases, a frequent and necessary action.

The $76.3 million figure, board officials said, splits the difference between the low and high increases they had considered seeking.

Universities cite the need to increase faculty salaries, support research units that suffered during the recession, cover increases in financial aid and expand the University of Mississippi Medical Center teaching and operations.

“It’s an expression of our needs,” said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, but adding, “ …The truth of the matter is it’s not a full reflection of our needs.”

Of the total, $34 million would go into a formula that allocates money to universities based in part on how many credit hours students complete. The board also wants $8 million for a special projects. Plus, the trustees seek 8 percent increases for the agricultural research units of Mississippi State University and Alcorn State University, which had proposed 12 percent hikes.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, sought a $17 million increase, which would boost its state funding by 9 percent to $205 million. The medical center would use the money to cover shortfalls in federal reimbursements for training medical residents, expanding enrollment and creating a department of preventive medicine.

Trustees can expect some kickback from part of the universities’ constituency because they did not agree to $7 million in requests from Delta State University, Mississippi Valley State University and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Mississippi’s revenue on the report covering through May showed a 4.43 percent increase in the fiscal year to date, in total about $289 million above the total expected revenue through that date. A final accounting of revenue over budgeted costs has not been made.

The board’s plan is ambitious, but given the vital nature of higher education to Mississippi’s economic growth and retention of the state’s best young minds, the request should get a full and fair hearing.