SID SALTER: Cutting universities’ support paves the slope to mediocrity

The basic problem is one that’s easy to quantify – for Mississippi universities, enrollments are growing while university state support budgets are shrinking.
Six of eight Mississippi public universities saw enrollments increase from 2009 to the current school year. Preliminary figures from the state College Board show Mississippi Valley State University’s enrollment declined 12.6 percent and Jackson State University’s numbers are down 1.1 percent.
However, the other six universities experienced enrollment growth, resulting in a systemwide increase of about 4.3 percent, or just over 3,000 students, compared to last year. There are 76,736 students enrolled in the state’s universities this year.

MSU nears 20,000
Mississippi State and Ole Miss both have record enrollments this year.
MSU has 19,644 students this semester – a 5.6 percent increase over last year while Ole Miss’ enrollment increased by 6.5 percent to 19,536. USM’s enrollment was up 3.2 percent to 15,778.
Mississippi University for Women showed 4.7 percent growth to an enrollment of 2,592.
There’s good news and bad news from those numbers.
With universities absorbing budget cuts last year of about 8.5 percent and current Fiscal Year 2011 budget cuts of 12.5 percent, higher enrollments present extreme fiscal challenges. But it’s in the projected 23 percent budget cuts for FY 2012 that the stuff hits the fans in the state’s universities.
With the percentage of state support for public universities steadily declining, the schools are left with few other options than to increase tuition, seek additional federal or privately-funded research dollars or direct endowment donations.
All three of those strategies have been employed. The College Board and the individual universities have been aggressive in implementing reorganization efforts and direct budget cuts. Consolidation or elimination of duplicating programs or elimination of administrative divisions has also been tried – along with consolidation of so-called “back shop” operations in which cost-sharing makes sense among the schools.
There will have to be more of that. But at some point, such cuts and cannibalization becomes counterproductive.

Why this growth?
People are going back to school in growing numbers because of high unemployment and the stagnant economy. They seek to retool and retrain themselves for jobs in the emerging sectors. Mississippians are beginning to understand that education is the only reliable ladder up and out of poverty. They get it.
But cutting state support for public universities reduces access for those in the economic middle – too well off to qualify for federal financial aid and too poor to pay for additional education out of pocket. Reducing access to universities by relying too much on higher tuition mires Mississippi in mediocrity.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.

Sid Salter