OUR OPINION: Income growth needs to match the optimism

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s eight public universities confirmed last week that tuition costs will rise for the fall 2013 semester – not a surprise in light of steadily climbing costs in recent years, but a situation that higher education officials admit places a heavier burden on students, parents and others who pay the bills.
“We recognize that it places a burden on students and we are doing everything we can to minimize increases,” said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds in an Associated Press article.
The increases, including extra fees previously approved, will raise prices by 8.1 percent at Mississippi State University and 7.6 percent at the University of Mississippi, the state’s two largest universities, both located in Northeast Mississippi.
The larger problem – supported by reliable measures like U.S. Census data – shows costs outstripping family income increases.
In-state tuition has gone up 57 percent since the fall of 2004, AP reported, while household incomes have been less than robust in their increases and remain far below median national income for households.
A unified voice on the issues of income growth and prosperity could be helpful in understanding why it’s necessary for the state universities to increase costs even as they struggle to remain competitive academically with peer institutions in other states, especially in the Southeast.
Elected officials and economic developers understandably stress every shred of positive information, but some of the positives mean nothing in light of the obvious need to ramp up family income growth and to support especially educational investment which leads to higher income.
It’s good that the state has $295 million left at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the full-funding needs for many state agencies, including higher education and public schools.
Interestingly, it’s conceded that “most students” don’t pay the “sticker price … thanks to federal, state and college-based aid,” said Larry Sparks, the vice chancellor for administration and finance at Ole Miss.
Federal aid, which includes loans backed by government guarantees, is too often condemned by legislators and others who have to know Mississippi stays afloat in large measure not by how it increases its wealth and the prosperity of its citizens, but with Washington’s largesse.
Universities say they need more money to increase faculty salaries, cover operating costs and make up for cuts to state aid during the recession – and that’s correct.
“We need the tuition increase to try to make up ground lost over the last five years,” said MSU spokesman Sid Salter.
Tuition is the obvious route to increase university revenue. The Legislature and other state elected officials need to understand that talking about increasing general prosperity doesn’t always match the facts.
Talking positively is good politics, but quantifiable and substantial growth in family income is what Mississippi must have to fully capitalize on the education that’s available and the opportunities opened by increasing educational attainment.