Keenum shares higher education funding concerns with IHL leadership

Mississippi State University President Mark E. Keenum released a statement to the MSU community today [April 29] regarding his recent dialogue with the leadership of the state College Board over higher education funding challenges for both the current and next fiscal years:

“The Mississippi Legislature recently adjourned the 2016 regular session. As I shared with the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning during public remarks at the April 21, 2016, regular meeting held on the campus of Delta State University in Cleveland, I have some very serious, very heartfelt concerns about the level of higher education funding adopted by our state’s leadership during this session.

“I think it’s both important and appropriate to share those remarks with Mississippi State University students, faculty and staff — and with the broader campus community. Here’s a transcript of my remarks to the IHL Board and Commissioner Glenn Boyce:

“Every (university president) here has worked hard, and all of our teams on our respective campuses, working with our commissioner (IHL Commissioner Glenn Boyce). He has done a tremendous job. And many of you have, I think, done an outstanding job in communicating our needs as a system going back to the Legislative Budget Committee hearings that we had last fall, meetings we’ve had with respective Appropriations Committees, and with the numerous members in leadership in the Legislature. You know, as we all say, there’s not a better investment of the tax dollars in the State of Mississippi to serve this state than in investing it in education, in particular, higher education. And as we all share with our leadership, there’s not a leader in our state government that doesn’t want our universities to be outstanding institutions of higher learning for our students, to do world-class research, and be outstanding in our outreach and service, and to do all these things at the highest level of quality while maintaining outstanding faculty members on our campuses — faculty that we have to compete for in the market with competitive salaries. All these things add up to the fact that we were underfunded when we started this process.

“As the commissioner pointed out a while ago going back to 2009, we are still underfunded. And I’ve been here now, I’m in my eighth year, and I can tell you that in those eight budget cycles, the only salary increase that we’ve had in our funding is the current year that we are in. And unfortunately what we’ve received as an increase has all but been taken away from us in two cuts that we’ve had and now in another cut going into this next fiscal year.

“As I tell our leaders in Jackson, you know you can’t have it both ways. We have all increased our tuitions I would say very marginally over the years. We still have the lowest tuition when you compare our institutions to our peers across this region and across the country. We are so affordable. We are the best bargain going for the quality we do provide for the cost that we charge our students. But as I say, you can’t have high quality and expect our institutions to not have the resources. And we only get our resources primarily as has just been pointed out by Mr. Pearce (John Pearce, Jr., Associate IHL Commissioner for Finance and Administration) from appropriations from taxpayers and tuition.

“And so to maintain quality, teaching and research and our service, all the things our citizens demand of us, we have to have resources. We’ve been blessed as a system. We’ve seen more students come to our universities. That has helped to offset the continual cuts we have received from our state. But how long can we continue to do that and keep growing our institutions and sustain ourselves with marginal increases in tuition? I don’t know, to be honest with you. But, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have low state appropriations and support, and low, low, low tuition and expect high quality and high output. It just doesn’t work that way.

“And I know the state is going through some tough times with our state revenues and they have to make very difficult decisions. But as I said in the outset, there is not a better investment for the State of Mississippi for our tax dollars than investing in these eight universities for all that we provide and all that we give back to the state.

“So, it’s not pleasant, and it’s not a happy time for any of us. We’ll keep working, we’ll do our best to serve our state. And we’ll work hard going into this next fiscal year to do a better job to try to communicate with and educate our leaders and also ordinary citizens all across Mississippi, about how fortunate this state is to have these eight great institutions of higher learning.”

“Let me be clear and unequivocal — effective and visionary higher education funding is just one of a host of critical issues vital to Mississippi’s future that our elected officials must address each year. It’s a difficult job and one for which I have profound respect. Never let it be said that we at MSU are in any way ungrateful for the support we receive, for we are decidedly grateful.

“But as our MSU campus community is fully aware, higher education in Mississippi is funded primarily by state appropriations and tuition. The cost of educating a student at MSU for a year is almost $16,400, yet a full year’s tuition and fees amount to only $7500, with $5,300 being met by state appropriations and $7,500 from tuition. That leaves a deficit of about $3,500, which we must struggle to cover from other sources including private giving and non-resident tuition fees.  This shortfall is nearly twice the amount from when I first arrived at MSU.

“That’s at the same time that MSU has achieved historic growth in enrollment. In other words, we are educating a record number of students this year, but we are accomplishing that task with a significantly lower percentage of state funding than on the day I assumed the presidency.

“Mississippi’s eight institutions of higher learning are again implementing reasonable tuition increases this year. Some in the state’s leadership continue to question that decision and express legitimate concern over higher education accessibility in the state.

“To bring perspective to that discussion, I would point out that even with those tuition increases, higher education is a bargain in Mississippi compared to the rest of the nation. MSU and the University of Mississippi have two of the lowest tuition costs in the Southeastern Conference.

 “The issue we face not just at MSU, but throughout higher education in Mississippi, is stable, reliable funding that takes into account maintenance, repairs, renovation and accounts for growth. MSU is responsible for the upkeep of 8.4 million gross square feet of facilities housed in 707 buildings. In addition, we maintain 15 miles of street and 140 acres of parking. We manage some 4,587 total acres. All those responsibilities to protect prior taxpayer investments on the MSU campus cost money.

“As I have said repeatedly in recent years, I believe that the appropriate measures should be the return on investment for students earning degrees and the value of university research in making discoveries that change lives and create economic opportunity in Mississippi.

“Another important point is that most of our students aren’t paying full sticker price for their high quality educations. Around 92 percent of our students receive some form of financial assistance in terms of grants, loans and scholarships. Only about half of our students accrue debt, which on average is less than the cost of a mid-size automobile.

“It bears repeating that in a state with the nation’s most pronounced poverty and the nation’s second-lowest level of educational attainment, the prizes of better jobs and better lives for our children and grandchildren are inexorably tied to an excellent, affordable, and accessible system of higher education.

“It’s a fact — the states with the highest per capita income are also the states with the highest levels of educational attainment. There is a direct correlation. Imagine what Mississippi would look like if 35 percent of us had at least a bachelor’s degree instead of the current 20 percent.

“That vision can only be achieved by a greater investment in higher education in this state — and a consistent and reliable investment as well. Is that investment worth it? Absolutely. The fact is that college graduates earn 75 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. The lifetime return on investment in higher education at MSU and at the rest of Mississippi’s higher education system remains demonstrably high.

“An honest evaluation of Mississippi’s higher education system reveals that it remains a mighty engine — powered by intellectual curiosity and scientific research discovery – that is the last, best hope of transforming Mississippi. Research universities in Mississippi are the best ally Mississippi taxpayers have in attracting and providing more and better jobs and a growing state economy.

“Our students and their families expect us to deliver a high quality education with a superior faculty, modern facilities, and a safe and stimulating environment in a visionary manner that ‘rings true’ with their goals and aspirations. I’ve never had a parent or a student ask me to ‘cut back on the quality.’

“Our goal has been and will remain to insulate our students and their families as much as possible from the impacts of fiscal challenges. We will approach the FY 2017 budget as we’ve approached prior budgets — with an eye toward protecting the academic quality of Mississippi’s flagship research university with the resources we are provided.”