Mississippi isn’t immune from national college tuition trends

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, March 23, 2013

Higher education in Mississippi has not been immune from national trends cited in a recent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report which concludes that over the last five years, the global economic downturn and a “no new taxes” political climate have increasingly shifted the burden of higher education finance to students and parents at a time when enrollment is increasing and the percentage of state support is decreasing.

As one who has for more than three decades studied and consumed a lot of think-tank public policy white papers, I have learned to take those studies with a grain of philosophical salt and to pay attention to the source of the numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. Without question, the CBPP is a liberal organization that focuses their research on issues that impact low-income populations.

But that philosophical background duly noted, the CBPP’s numbers are usually above reproach. The CBPP’s numbers on the topic of how U.S. states are handling higher education finance over the last five years — adjusted for inflation — are as follows:

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The report cites that national averages show states are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education in the current 2013 fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit. In addition, the report indicates that every state except for North Dakota and Wyoming is spending less per student on higher education than they did prior to the recession.

CBPP researchers conclude that 11 states have cut funding by more than one-third per student, and two states — Arizona and New Hampshire — have cut their higher education spending per student in half.

What do the numbers reflect for Mississippi in the report? The CBPP report cites that the decrease in state spending per student in Mississippi over the period from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2013 — again with researchers adjusting for inflation — is $3,146 per student or down 32.4 percent.

At the same time that Mississippi is part of a national trend of declining percentages of state support for higher education, the state is likewise part of a corresponding national trend of escalating tuition. The CBPP report finds that nationally “average annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by $1,850, or 27 percent, in real terms between the 2007-08 school year, the year just prior to the recession, and the current 2012-13 school year.”

What about Mississippi? The report identifies Mississippi’s overall growth in tuition — adjusted for inflation — over the same five-year period as increasing by an average 17.5 percent or an average $915.

Perhaps the most germane numbers cited in the report has to do with access to higher education in Mississippi, which still struggles as the poorest state in the union. The CBPP report cites a national shift over the last 25 years in responsibility for funding higher education from the state to the students. From 1987 through 2012, the CBPP report examined total educational revenues — tuition plus state/local government appropriations — made available from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association that reflected nationally that students were bearing 23 percent of the cost of funding higher education in 1987. That percentage had grown to just over 46 percent by 2012.

It is a myth to suggest that all good jobs in the nation’s evolving economy require a college education.  We all know exceptions to that rule among Mississippi’s skilled workers in trades and craft — and the behemoth economic engine of small businesses and sole proprietorships.

Education has an intrinsic value. But another study — this one by the Brookings Institution — shows that a young college graduate earns $12,000 more per year than someone who did not attend college. In the state with the lowest per capita income, isn’t that the bottom line when evaluating strategies to move the state’s economic needle forward?

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)