New tuition gap may have unintended consequences

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, November 30, 2013

As part of the settlement in the Ayers case that challenged segregation in Mississippi’s higher education’s system, the state adopted the same admissions standards for all eight universities.

Prior to that time, it was tougher to get into the historically white universities than the historically black ones — a disparity that federal courts found perpetuated segregation.

Although universal admissions standards have been effective in increasing black enrollment at the historically white schools, they also have brought an unintended consequence. As the state made it easier to get into the three largest universities — Mississippi State, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi, the smaller schools struggled to maintain their enrollments.

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A growing new disparity — this time in tuition costs — might help correct that, but it could also bring its own unintended consequence.

Last week, the College Board approved a tuition plan for the next two years that will increase the cost of enrolling at five of the universities, but leave it unchanged at the two Delta schools and Mississippi University for Women.

Next year, on tuition alone, it will be about 17 percent less expensive — more than a $1,000 cheaper — to attend one of these smaller universities than the three largest ones.

The difference might be enough to better allocate the student populations among the universities, shifting them from the overcrowded larger schools to the underutilized smaller ones.

One concern, of course, is that a tuition gap will undo some of the progress Mississippi has made in increasing black enrollments at the comprehensive universities. If the largest schools get priced out of the reach of the state’s poorer families, the minority enrollments of these schools most likely will decline.

It’s a difficult balancing act. Can you prop up student numbers at universities in the heavily black areas of the state without reducing black enrollment elsewhere? What’s more important, diversity or keeping eight universities viable? The state may have to pick.