By President William N. LaForge
The continued cuts to state funding for public universities in Mississippi present a significant challenge that is felt not only at the university level, but also across the entire state.
Each of the eight public four year universities has a considerable investment in our students, businesses, employees, communities, outreach efforts, and research projects—all of which ripple out to impact the state’s economy and future. All of us as citizens of Mississippi are affected directly or indirectly by higher education outcomes, sometimes in ways we don’t even realize.
Mississippi Today recently reported that between fiscal years 2010 and 2017, state university funding has declined 4.5 percent, and general funding for IHL has declined more than 7 percent. During that same time, system-wide enrollment has increased more than 12 percent, and the number of degrees awarded in this state has increased nearly 14 percent. The hardest hit budgets have been the universities’ operating budgets that provide funding for maintaining campus operations and paying the salaries of the faculty and staff who educate our students.
State funding is necessary to supplement tuition and other revenue for our universities that, collectively, are one of the best higher education bargains in the country, and which boast reasonable tuition rates that other states and universities envy.
To support the vision of a new Mississippi, the most appropriate view of higher education expenditures by the state is not simply that of an expense item in the budget. It is much more essentially an investment—in our students, in our state, and in our future.
Like our sister public institutions, Delta State manages scarce resources in an environment of competing priorities every day. We strategically focus our attention and spending on programs, initiatives, and educational offerings that bring value to our students and to the state. And, we rely basically on state funding and student tuition to provide the revenue necessary to accomplish our mission. Some ask, ‘How can we measure the outcomes and the return on our investment?’ The answer is in the products we produce—prepared students who are ready to enter the professions and workforce across the state. All of our state universities are working hard every day to meet that goal through prudent allocation of resources.
One example of smart, targeted spending that produces terrific outcomes at Delta State is our emphasis on improved retention—helping our students stay in school and on the path to graduation. Between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2016, we experienced significant increases in retention rates for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen—5.2 percent; first time, full-time, degree-seeking transfer students—7.8 percent; and, all full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students—3.7 percent. Simply put, this means more students stayed in school and on the path to graduation—and on the path to being more productive, employable citizens of our state.
But, the retention programs that produce this success cost money. Better said, they beg for our investment of dollars to support a program that will help Mississippi get off the bottom rung of American educational and economic metrics. We are being asked by the state to continue doing this good work—to continue producing more and better-educated students—with fewer and fewer resources. By any measure, that is an unsustainable pattern.
Here at Delta State University, as at all our public universities, we believe in putting students first, and that quality education should be available to all qualified students in this state. We offer the lowest tuition in the region, and we make the most of our limited resources, while still providing a top-tier education for our students. But, as long as state funding is severely limited or cut, this model of success will be undermined.
Just as our eight public universities merit the investment of Mississippi tax dollars to support our educational mission, our students individually also need financial assistance to enroll and stay in school. State research data show that 89 percent of our eligible full-time, degree-seeking students, both undergraduate and graduate, received some form of financial aid during the 2015-16 academic year. These deserving students need our support to help them earn a college degree—a tangible outcome that serves the best interests of our state on so many levels.
In the rural Delta of Mississippi, Delta State is seen as a beacon of opportunity in a place where opportunity is sometimes lacking. In the fall of 2016, for example, 25 percent of our student body comprised first-generation students. This number is clearly indicative of the urgent need for, and value of, higher education in the Magnolia State. When we educate that first generation student, we are lifting up an entire family.
Continuing to cut state funding for higher education puts statewide efforts for student success at dire risk. Future cuts will only produce a steeper uphill battle in the fight to lift this state off the economic bottom. We cannot continue to be expected to produce more graduates, continue our outreach efforts in our communities, and fund vital research with fewer resources.
Let’s continue to educate Mississippians and to make this state a better place to live, work, prosper, and raise our families. Enhanced state funding for higher education—not more budget cuts—is the key to a brighter future for this state.