Charlie Mitchell

Importing college students also a growth industry in Mississippi

For every person who left this state in search of higher education last fall, more than five from other states enrolled at a Mississippi public university.

Think about that.

Then ask yourself whether it’s smart for the Legislature to continue reducing the slice of state income allocated to its eight institutions.

There are 16,000 nonresident college students in Mississippi, according to the Institutions of Higher Learning System Profile. Put them all in one place and they’d mirror the population of Natchez or Greenwood or Long Beach.

Too, the number is steadily rising, according to The New York Times.

In addition to backpacks and sneakers, what do they bring?

The average add-on for nonresidents attending Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Jackson State, Alcorn State or the University of Southern Mississippi is very close to $10,000 year. You don’t have to pass college algebra to cipher that: $160 million. It’s essentially “found money.”

The imports also pay the same tuition and fees as homegrown students, and the $10,000 each is just a trickle compared to what the 16,000 spend on rent, food, clothing, fuel and everything else, including the occasional mug of beer.

In June, this column focused on surging spending by college athletics, focusing on the two Southeastern Conference schools — Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Because of the SEC Network and national rankings in multiple sports, the two schools this year have about $180 million to spend — double the total of just a few years ago.

An article in last week’s Times shifted attention to the classrooms. Higher education is a growth industry in Mississippi, too.

This is a category in which many states have a net deficit. That is, more students leave a state than arrive to seek a diploma. California is a leading exporter as are Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Tennessee.

Why?

The Times reported, not surprisingly, that it was due to money.

What the states that are losing students have in common is sharp — really sharp — increases in tuition to offset sharp — really sharp — reductions in public support.

Who can blame parents for bargain hunting? Tuition at Illinois State is $15,000 per year. It’s half that at any Mississippi university. For every Illinois student staying in Illinois, eight left.

Several states, according to The Times, are in equilibrium — about the same number of students coming to the state as leaving. Magnet states with Mississippi are South Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and North Dakota.

Money alone can’t be cited as the only factor or even the dominant factor in selecting a college. The decision of whether and where to attend college is subjective, no doubt. But money must be part of the picture given that New Jersey, where the tuition is $4,000 more than the national average, saw 13 students leave for each student imported.

So what’s Mississippi doing about higher ed? Pretty much the same as other states, really. As state revenue has risen, a declining slice of the general fund has been provided. In 2000, the share was 16.5 percent. Most recently it dropped to 10.5 percent. In some years, because the pie is bigger, the percentage yielded a funding increase, but not at the pace of costs.

What may be key is that Mississippi’s changes seem to be less drastic. While state support has fallen and tuition has increased, the increments have been manageable. No doubt, the burden has truly been shifted to students and families. Where state funds provided 25 percent of the University of Mississippi operating budget 10 years ago, the public contribution slipped to 15 percent for the last budget year.

As an employee in higher education, it’s been a practice to avoid topics related to state universities. Conflict of interest, you know. This, however, is about economic development more than any campus-related issue.

After the national implosion of 2008, it became clear that America’s economy wasn’t going to return with the mechanisms of the last century. Much less big manufacturing, much more service-oriented.

Always struggling, Mississippi must look to niche opportunities — tourism, entertainment, sports and higher education. This is not a state where one sector dominates as agriculture did in the past. It’s going to continue to be a state where lots of smaller sectors combine to provide opportunities.

Nationally, universities provide 2.5 million jobs, and 60 percent of them are clerical, managerial, engineering, food service, construction, maintenance and more.

The IHL tallies higher education in Mississippi as a $4.6 billion enterprise.

Steps to import more students could only help.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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