Miss. university leaders won’t rule out tuition increase

Published 4:51 pm Friday, February 8, 2008

Leaders of Mississippi’s eight public universities told lawmakers Thursday that their schools need millions more dollars for the coming year so they can retain talented professors, repair aging buildings and cover the rising costs of health insurance and utilities.

It’s similar to the pitch the higher education officials made in 2007, and legislators granted that election-year wish for a budget boost.

Then a month after the legislative session ended, some lawmakers were dismayed when the College Board approved a 7 percent tuition increase — adding about $260 to each student’s annual out-of-pocket cost.

Higher Education Commissioner Thomas Meredith told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that without more state support during the fiscal year that starts July 1, it would be “unrealistic” for people not to expect another tuition increase.

“We call it tuition,” Meredith said. “Others call it a user tax.”

The universities, though, are unlikely to get everything they want.

Legislators are dealing with a tight budget, and almost every state agency is asking for more cash. There is no talk of a tax increase.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour recommends that during the coming year, the universities receive the same amount of money they’re getting now. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is recommending a decrease.

The full House and Senate must agree on a spending plan by April.

Higher education leaders said that even if the governor’s budget were approved, they’d have a hard time making ends meet because of the increasing cost of living.

Meredith said campus leaders are finding ways to trim expenses. For example, he said Jackson State University President Ronald Mason has saved $134,000 by restructuring JSU’s motor pool.

Andrell Harris, the 22-year-old student body president at JSU, thanked lawmakers for giving universities a budget increase last year and asked them to dig deep again.

In front of the standing-room-only crowd in the committee room, Harris asked Meredith the question several lawmakers said they had been itching to ask themselves.

“Is there any way that we can set a magic number?” Harris asked. “And the magic number would be a number for each university saying that, ‘This is how much money we need to fully fund our university for this year, this fiscal year, and if they give us this number we won’t have to raise tuition.’”

Harris did not get an answer to his question.