Higher education funding is inexorably tied to state’s future growth, progress
By Mark E. Keenum
The Mississippi Legislature recently convened the 2016 regular session. Effective and visionary higher education funding is just one of a host of critical issues vital to Mississippi’s future that our elected officials must address.
Higher education in Mississippi is funded primarily by state appropriations and tuition. At Mississippi State University and in the broader Mississippi higher education system, we remain grateful to our funding partners, the Mississippi Legislature and the taxpayers, for their invaluable support of our important mission.
It bears repeating that in a state with the nation’s most pronounced poverty and the nation’s second-lowest percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees, the prizes of better jobs and better lives for our children and grandchildren are inextricably tied to an excellent, affordable, and accessible system of higher education.
It’s a fact – the states with the highest levels of educational attainment are also the states with the highest per capita income. There is a direct correlation. College graduates also contribute more in taxes at the state and national levels, helping sustain public education, law enforcement, and other government functions. At the same time, they draw less from social support programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, and are less likely to be incarcerated, which results in high costs to the state.
Imagine what Mississippi would look like if 35 percent of us had at least a bachelor’s degree, instead of the current 20 percent.
The cost of educating a student at Mississippi State University for one year is almost $16,400, yet a full year’s tuition and fees is only about $7,500 and state support provided to the university is less than $5,500 per student. That leaves a shortfall of $3,400 per student, per year, that the university must struggle to cover from other sources including private giving. That funding gap has almost doubled since 2009, when I became president.
During the same period, since 2009, Mississippi State has achieved historic enrollment growth. We are educating a record number of students this year, but we are accomplishing that task with a level of state support that is lower than it was seven years ago.
Higher education in Mississippi is a bargain compared to the rest of the nation. MSU and the University of Mississippi have two of the lowest tuition costs in the Southeastern Conference. In fact, the average cost of tuition in Mississippi as a whole is the ninth-lowest in the nation at $6,600. It is over $8,700 in Tennessee and over $9,300 in Alabama.
At Mississippi State, more than 90 percent of incoming freshmen receive grants or scholarships from the federal or state government or the university. Half of our bachelor’s degree graduates leave school with no federal loan debt at all. For those who do have student loans to be paid off, the debt is less than that incurred in buying a mid-sized car.
Is the investment in college worth it? Absolutely. College graduates earn 65 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. The lifetime return on investment in a college degree
remains demonstrably high. Our graduates are earning a great return on their investment at the same time university research is making discoveries that change lives and create economic opportunity in Mississippi.
Mississippi’s higher education system remains a mighty engine – powered by intellectual curiosity and scientific research discovery – that is the best hope of transforming our state. Research universities in Mississippi are the best ally taxpayers have in attracting and providing more and better jobs and a growing state economy.
Our students and their families expect us to deliver a high quality education with a superior faculty, modern facilities, and a safe and stimulating environment in a visionary manner that “rings true” with their goals and aspirations. I’ve never had a parent or a student ask me to “cut back on quality.”
Investing in our universities is the smartest move we can make to help create the future that we all want for our state. The direct and indirect returns to Mississippi as a result of having more college graduates in our workforce, along with the benefits of university research and service, far exceed the investment in our institutions the state makes through appropriations.
I am hopeful that our legislators and other leaders will recognize that fact and take action to help our universities keep on providing vital services to more than 3 million Mississippians each day.
Mark E. Keenum is the 19th president of Mississippi State University and is chairman of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges’ Executive Council. SACS-COC is the recognized regional accrediting body in the 11 U.S. Southern states for those institutions of higher education that award associate, baccalaureate, master’s or doctoral degrees. Contact him at email@example.com.
Bully Bloc is a non-partisan political action committee not affiliated with Mississippi State University.