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USM president urges Columbus leaders to support higher education

 

Rodney Bennett, University of Southern Mississippi president, and Ann Marie Chilcutt talk with Columbus Rotary Club member Aaron Gregory after Bennett spoke on higher education during the club's meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Rodney Bennett, University of Southern Mississippi president, and Ann Marie Chilcutt talk with Columbus Rotary Club member Aaron Gregory after Bennett spoke on higher education during the club's meeting Tuesday afternoon. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Angel Coker

 

 

University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett urged Columbus leaders to support public higher education at Tuesday's Columbus Rotary Club meeting at Lion Hills. 

 

Bennett talked broadly about the state's public higher education institutions and their need to evolve to meet the needs of more in-state students to increase enrollment and ultimately economic impact. 

 

"Public higher education is at a critical juncture in our region, in our state and in our nation," Bennett said. 

 

Bennett said the state's eight public universities serve about 80,000 in-state and out-of-state students, resulting in $900 million in financial aid each year from various sources. 

 

One concern, he said, is enrollment of in-state students.  

 

Bennett said declining graduation rates among Mississippi high schools have driven universities to recruit more from out of state. 

 

According to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, for each of the next 10 years, more students are projected to graduate from Texas high schools than from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia combined. 

 

Bennett said another concern is the cost of higher education, and many question if the cost is worth the outcome. 

 

He said it is, not only because studies show college graduates earn substantially more money than people that don't go beyond a high school level, and are 50 percent less likely to be unemployed, but because it develops a student holistically and intellectually. 

 

Bennett said, according to Navient, a student loan servicer, only 38 percent of U.S. families have a financial plan to pay for all years of college.  

 

But with only an average of 31 percent of financial aid coming from scholarships, the majority of college funding comes from student loans, family contributions and student income. 

 

He said Mississippi's public universities must offer alternative ways to address budgetary challenges that limit in-state students from accessing higher education. 

 

One incentive for that, he said, is many in-state students ultimately stay or return to Mississippi as taxpayers, resulting in positive economic impact on the state. 

 

Bennett said USM, the third-largest university in Mississippi, generates $603 million annually in economic impact to the state. 

 

Students also impact local economy as they pay for housing, food and entertainment, among other things while attending university. 

 

"The W...(is) generating significant economic impact that allows many of the businesses...to have the type of success you all are able to enjoy," Bennett said. 

 

Bennett told Rotarians they should encourage students to attend college because of that. 

 

Locally, MUW enrolls about 3,600 students annually. The university also puts on weekly events, open to the public, that attract consumers to the downtown area. 

 

MUW President Jim Borsig, who attended Tuesday's Rotary meeting, said the university conducted an economic impact analysis about four years ago, but he couldn't recall the ultimate outcome. 

 

But he said the greatest impact comes after the university sends students into the workforce, and they become taxpayers. 

 

"That changes somebody's life, to finish a college degree and to be able to get a job and make a good living," he said.

 

 

 

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