July 3, 2013 9:10:00 PM
JACKSON -- Tuition at Mississippi's eight public universities will increase by an average of more than 6 percent this fall, an amount universities say is needed to make up for the lingering effects of state aid cuts during the recession.
State College Board figures show the average price for two semesters of full-time tuition and fees will rise by an average of $381. That puts it at $6,329.
The College Board voted in spring 2012 on a two-year tuition plan and didn't vote on the subject this year. Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said schools were given the option to change plans this spring, but none chose to.
"We recognize that it places a burden on students and we are doing everything we can to minimize increases," Bounds said.
In November, the board approved $50-a-semester facilities fee for students at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi. Those extra fees mean the state's two largest universities are raising their prices by the largest percentages -- 8.1 percent at MSU and 7.6 percent at Ole Miss.
Most students don't pay the sticker price, thanks to federal, state and college-based aid. Larry Sparks, the vice chancellor for administration and finance at Ole Miss, pointed to the Ole Miss Opportunity program, created in 2010 to cover the cost of tuition, room and board for Mississippi residents whose families make $30,000 or less per year.
"We are doing our best to maintain affordability for as many of our students as we can," he said.
Still, increasing college costs are far outstripping stagnant family incomes. In-state tuition has gone up 57 percent since the fall of 2004, while household incomes have been flat in Mississippi. It now takes about 16 percent of the typical Mississippi family's income to pay for one year of college at a state university, not counting room, board or other costs.
As costs outstrip family incomes, more students are borrowing to pay for school. More than half of students at the state's eight public universities had federally-financed student debt in 2011, with the average student borrowing more than $6,000. The numbers are higher at some schools. Federal figures show 90 percent of Mississippi Valley State University undergraduates had loans in 2011, owing an average of more than $7,800.
Universities say they need more money to increase faculty salaries, cover operation costs and make up for cuts to state aid during the recession.
"We need the tuition increase to try to make up ground lost over the last five years," said MSU spokesman Sid Salter.
State aid to universities is going up in the budget year that began Monday, but not enough to make up for years of cuts. On a per-student basis, aid shrank even more during the economic downturn, because enrollment across the eight-university system rose about 14 percent between fall 2007 and fall 2012.
"State general support appropriations and tuition are our two major sources of operational funds," Valley spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman said in a statement. "Tuition increases have been necessitated by rising cost and state support that has declined over time."
Both Ole Miss and MSU gave raises to employees at the start of the budget year. Ole Miss set aside a pool of about $4 million to be distributed for raises. That would have been enough for a 3 percent across-the-board increase. However, raises were given based on merit or for employees whose compensation was far behind peers at other schools, not across-the-board.
At MSU, the school set aside a pool worth 1.5 percent. Spokesman Sid Salter said individual departments were allowed to chip in other funds, meaning the average raise was closer to 2 percent.
Mississippi universities typically pay less than their southern peers, according to College Board figures. But Bounds notes that the market for academic talent is nationwide, not local.
"I think the universities in this state are in real peril if that gap continues to widen," he said.
Bounds said he hoped that increasing state revenues and lawmakers' support for the board's new state aid formula for universities might provide enough money to slow tuition increases next year.
"We're hopeful that the economy continues to improve and we get better appropriations," he said. "I think we're probably at a point with several of the institutions where it would be difficult to increase tuition anyway."
Bounds said the College Board is likely to discuss 2014-2015 tuition rates as early as August or September.
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