Community and junior colleges need to meet shortfalls, expenses

Published 7:00 am Friday, June 20, 2014

POPLARVILLE — Potential students planning on attending junior college this fall will pay a little bit more than they would have last year.

Tuition at Mississippi’s junior and community colleges will increase by an average of about 4 percent this fall, according to figures from the state Board of Community and Junior Colleges.

Of the state’s 15 independently governed institutions, nine plan to raise rates on students. Pearl River Community College is among the nine that plan to raise their costs.

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PRCC President William Lewis said operating expenses are driving the price hikes. He said electric rates have risen, the college is paying more to insure buildings from hurricane damage and the college must replace federal grant money that is running out.

“All of those things continue to mount up,” Lewis said.

It’s not clear how that will affect enrollment. Last fall, when Jones County Junior College had the highest tuition in the state, it was the only college to show an increase in enrollment. Lewis said fall registration at Pearl River is running ahead of the same pace last year at this time.

Average tuition across the state will rise to $2,476 annually, up from $2,377 in the 2013-2014 school year, according to board figures.

The increases come even though college state funding increased in the coming budget year, which begins July 1.

Though still short of the funding level for community colleges that is specified in state law, the total amount will rise by 4.6 percent, or $10 million, in the 2015 budget to a total of about $250 million. Two-year colleges will be getting more money than they did before the recession, although they now have more students.

Community colleges are intended to be an affordable gateway to higher education and skill training for people who can’t or don’t want to attend four-year universities.

“A Mississippi community college education is one of the great bargains in the U.S.,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board.

Clark said enrollment in Mississippi’s two-year schools surged by more than 20 percent during the recession even as budgets were slashed.

“That, in a nutshell, is why we raised tuition,” Clark said. He also said colleges need to increase revenue to give raises to faculty.

Though budgets have begun to rebound, enrollment has fallen for three consecutive years as an improving job market cut demand for training.

Still, tuition continues to rise faster than inflation and personal income growth. The dollar amounts each year are small, only $100 or $200 a year. But over time, price increases have hurt affordability. While community college tuition cost 3.2 percent of median family income in Mississippi in 2000, it cost 6 percent in 2013, according to Southern Regional Education Board figures.

Many Mississippi community college students pay less than full tuition through a combination of scholarships and financial aid. In 20 of Mississippi’s 82 counties, local governments and private donors pay tuition for recent high school graduates who are not covered by other financial aid. Federal Pell Grants typically cover tuition and books for the poorest students.

Traditionally, many colleges only increase tuition every second or third year. Pearl River Community College, though, has raised charges three years in a row. Its 9.6 percent increase will push annual tuition to $2,750, the highest in the state.

Six colleges aren’t raising tuition, including Coahoma Community College, which will hold steady at $2,300 a year. Two others are raising tuition by less than 1 percent, including Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which is imposing a $20-a-year increase.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)