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Divided college board OKs housing hike, declines to raise tuition




JACKSON -- A sharply divided state college board Thursday went with university presidents'' pleas and voted to raise room-and-board charges imposed on students. 


However, the board turned down presidents'' requests to increase tuition for Mississippi residents in the next school year. 


Everything dealing with money is still up in the air because the Legislature hasn''t yet passed a state budget for the fast-approaching fiscal year, but university administrators pressed the board to allow them to raise additional revenues by charging students more to live and eat on campus. The board adopted the increase in a 6-4 vote. 


University leaders said their schools need more money to pay the higher expenses of providing meals and accommodations for students.  


"We have a mandatory obligation to pay for these costs," said Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum.  


As approved by the board, the campus-rooming rates will increase by a per-student average of about $180 for two semesters at the eight universities. The rent for a two-person dormitory room averaged $3,291 in the past school year and $4,718 for a one-student room. 


To eat on campus, the rate will increase by an average of $114 for a student with the most comprehensive meal plan. The meal cost for the past school year averaged $2,238. 


At Mississippi University for Women, the price for the most expensive meal plan goes up $93 to $2,150 for the next school year. The annual double-occupancy room rent is about $3,000. 


"Our room and board is very, very low," said Mississippi University for Women President Claudia Limbert. 




Meeting needs 


In seeking an increase in student-meal charges, MUW reported to the board its needs about $62,000 more to pay the company that runs the university''s food-service operations. Sodexo gets more money to pay for rising food prices. The higher student-housing charges will generate about $54,000 for MUW to make repairs and security enhancements for residential halls and to pay for other expenses. 


MSU reported it needs about $120,000 more for the federally required increase in the minimum wage paid to food-service workers. The university also needs about $84,000 more to pay Aramark for the rising cost of food it serves on campus. 


The four college board members who opposed letting the universities increase campus room-and-meal rates said it''s not right to make students pay more to attend college when they''re suffering through an economic recession that has people losing jobs and income. 


"Times are really tough. I think we (the universities) ought to take a temporary hit. ... I think we have got to take it out of their hides somewhere," said board member Amy Whitten, of Oxford. "I will not choose to inflict one more penny of costs on (students) right now." 


"I think the institutions should absorb the costs and not the students," said board President Scott Ross of West Point. 




Rising prices 


Campus-meal prices have gone up 65 percent since 2000 and housing rental rates have increased by 83 percent, according to statistics Ross presented to the board. 


The six board members who favored the room-and-meal rate increases agreed the universities need additional revenue, especially since their request to increase tuition for Mississippi residents was turned down. 


"We want to keep the institutions financially healthy as best we can," said Stacy Davidson, of Cleveland. 


"I think our students are willing to pay for that quality," said Christine Lindsay Pickering, of Biloxi, who calculated the rate increase per student to be 90 cents a day.  


The Board of Institutions of Higher Learning approved the plan not to raise tuition for Mississippi residents, but it increased the charge for out-of-state students. 


However, the tuition plan is based on the assumption the Legislature gives universities a small budget increase that combines state funds with federal stimulus money to total about $400 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. This is about $6 million more than what the Legislature appropriated in 2008 for the fiscal year that''s about to end.  


University presidents had asked for a 4.8 percent tuition increase based on the assumption the Legislature will adopt a small budget cut Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed for universities. 


However, based on the assumption of getting the funding increase from the Legislature and federal government, the IHL board staff recommended no tuition increase for Mississippi residents. They''ve seen their tuition rates go up by $1,900 since 2000 to the current average of $4,740 for the eight universities. 


The board decided Thursday that''s enough for now. 


"I''m pleased that the board has voted to keep resident tuition level to assist the people of Mississippi through this difficult economic time," said board member Bob Owens, of Jackson.  


The board did approve non-resident and professional-school tuition. Non-resident tuition will increase an average of $366, or 3 percent, for the eight universities. Of the 70,000 students attending a Mississippi university, about 14,000 are from another state or country. 




Funding limbo 


Because the Mississippi Legislature has not adopted a state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, the board could not allocate money to the eight universities as it normally does each year. Until it can make an allocation after July 1, the board decided to give the universities the authority to spend in July and August at the same level as last year. This assumes the Legislature passes a budget within two weeks. 


"If we don''t have an appropriation by June 30, we''re not sure what happens," said state Assistant Higher Education Commissioner Linda McFall. 


IHL board members noted Mississippi has no legal provisions to continue government operations like the federal government does when the U.S. Congress fails to pass a budget on time. 


The state Legislature and Barbour must enact a new budget into law, "or the lights are going to go dark everywhere," said board member Alan Perry, of Jackson.  


House-Senate budget leaders continue to negotiate a compromise to present to the Republican governor, but the prospects for an agreement appeared grim Thursday. They continue to have sharp differences -- mainly now over Medicaid funding. 


"I urge Gov. Barbour to help us end this impasse and remove the anxiety over lost services, job furloughs and pay delays," said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. 


In response, Barbour''s press secretary said the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives needs to agree with what the governor wants before he convenes a special session of the Legislature to pass the budget. 


"Gov. Barbour repeatedly has called on the House to take responsible action on the budget, and has said he will call a special session when negotiators reach an agreement," said Dan Turner.




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