Other Opinions

Inflated enrollment at Mississippi universities costs taxpayers

With tight state budgets looming for the foreseeable future, government operations must be rationalized to higher levels of efficiency and performance. Mississippi’s public universities should not be exempt from this process.

In last week’s column, I suggested legislators look hard at university admission standards and out-of-state tuition. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning’s current approach is to admit under-prepared students and to discount out-of-state tuition. This approach inflates enrollment, drives demand for tax dollars and results in nonstop tuition increases and requests for new bonding authority.

Consider this. Since 2011, enrollment at our public universities grew from 80,516 to 82,654, but in-state enrollment fell from 61,917 to 57,717, a 7 percent decrease. The enrollment increase came totally from out-of-state students, growing from 18,599 to 24,939, a 34 percent increase. No doubt much of this growth results from the 2012 law legislators passed allowing IHL to discount out-of-state tuition.

If the goal is for universities to grow enrollment, things are hunky-dory. But if the goal is for universities to educate and graduate Mississippi residents, things are not so swell.

A compliant Legislature is part of the problem.

The 2012 law allowing discounted out-of-state tuition should be rescinded. Admission practices at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University should be at least as high as major universities in neighboring states. And admission practices at the other six universities should incorporate a minimum 21 ACT score. Students with ACT scores as low as 16 can be admitted now.

ACT predicts at least 75 percent of university students achieving a 21 composite ACT score (18 in English, 21 in social science, 22 in math and 24 in science) should earn a C average or better. That’s a pretty low standard.

However, the average ACT scores at four universities are below 21 — Mississippi Valley State University 17, Alcorn State University 18, Jackson State University 19 and Delta State University 20. Scores at Mississippi University for Women and University of Southern Mississippi are 21 and 22, respectively.

The average ACT scores at Ole Miss and MSU are both 24. But averages at major universities in neighboring states are higher — Alabama 26, Arkansas 26, Louisiana State University 26 and Tennessee 27.

Admission standards at most universities are based on a combination of ACT or SAT scores and high school grades on the college preparatory curriculum. Major universities in neighboring states tend to admit students with at least a 23 on the ACT plus above-average high school grades.

Eliminating out-of-state tuition discounts and incorporating into admission practices at least a 21 ACT score at six Mississippi universities and at least a 23 ACT score at Ole Miss and MSU would just about wipe out the need for remediation, significantly improve graduation rates, cause dramatic reductions in university enrollment and staffing, and reduce demands for taxpayer support.

Along with these changes, alternative education pathways would need to be provided for the thousands of under-prepared students graduating our high schools. Community colleges are one existing pathway. Others would mitigate disproportionate impact to our historically black universities.

Political fallout would be intense, but taxpayers are demanding more efficient and productive government.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.

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