University research becoming a substantial job incubator in state

Published 4:33 pm Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The results of enrollment growth on the campus of Mississippi State University – and by and large in the rest of the state’s higher education and community college system as well – are tangible and visible.

MSU is dealing with the reality of crossing the 20,000-student threshold this fall. Parking – whether for a vehicle or a backside in a seat in one of the multiple places to eat lunch on campus at peak times – is a challenge. Housing is maxed out on campus and in the private sector. Classes are large and more sections are being created to accommodate the core courses like English and American Government.

More instructors and graduate assistants are being employed to handle teaching duties both as a means to deal with increasing enrollment and as a budget tool as well.

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It has been observed and correctly so that hard times drive people back to school to gain new skills. Enrollment at Hinds Community College has increased by 30 percent over the past three years and as Eric Clark, the executive director of the state’s community college board told Mississippi Public Broadcasting this week, there are positives and negatives.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” Clark said. “We’re glad that enrollment has boomed because that means we’re making more people’s lives better, but it’s certainly been a challenge because state appropriations have not been able to keep up with enrollment growth.”

Despite the best intentions of the Legislature and the state’s executive branch leaders, the percentage of funding from state support for higher education in the state has steadily decreased over the last decade while tuition and federal funding increased.

Mississippi universities were long the beneficiaries of congressionally directed spending or “earmarks” for decades for research and infrastructure spending, but the nation’s political climate and the ongoing debate over federal debts and deficits have at best restricted or at worst eliminated that source of funding. The impact of that movement has been for universities to seek to make their research programs that had received earmarks competitive for federal research grants.

But the overall funding impact is substantial, according to National Science Foundation analysis. In the state’s historically black institutions in fiscal year 2009, Jackson State University received $37.3 million in federally financed research expenditures while Alcorn got $10.7 million and Mississippi Valley State got $1.06 million.  In FY 2009, all Mississippi public universities received a total of $255.7 million in federal research spending. The breakdown for the rest of the state’s public universities that year was as follows: MSU, 109.2 million; University of Mississippi, $62.1 million; and University of Southern Mississippi, $41.5 million.

Conversely in FY 2009, Mississippi state and local governments funded $36.2 million in university research. Private institutions paid for $98 million in Mississippi university research, while private industry paid for $14.5 million.

The correlation between university research and the creation of private sector jobs is obvious and undeniable. When both Nissan and Toyota located auto manufacturing plants in Mississippi, research institutes followed at MSU and at Ole Miss. The polymer science program at USM is a proven job incubator and the medical research at the University of Mississippi Medical Center creates jobs and saves lives. The Carnegie Foundation has classified MSU as a “very high research activity university” – the only school in the state with that distinction.

The debate over federal spending at all levels is relevant to Mississippi in countless ways, but federal spending on university research has historically been a vital component in funding higher education in Mississippi. The question in the current political climate is whether Mississippi’s research institutions can be competitive for federal grants in this new paradigm. The answer is “yes.”

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or