February 3, 2009
JACKSON -- A Senate committee last week rejected its chairman''s proposal to cap university tuition.
The Universities and Colleges Committee on Thursday voted down the plan, which was offered by Sen. Doug Davis, R-Hernando, with the backing of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and state Auditor Stacey Pickering.
The committee even rejected an alternative proposal to just study the concept of limiting tuition.
Senate Bill 2695 would have prohibited universities'' tuition increases from exceeding the economy''s annual inflation rate. The bill also said a tuition hike couldn''t take effect until a year after being set by the state Board of Institutions of Higher Learning.
State university leaders argued against limiting tuition increases as their budgets are getting cut by the governor and Legislature.
"If you tell us to cap tuition, then we''re out of business," University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat told Davis at a Senate hearing last week.
Universities must rely on students for tuition revenue when the Legislature falls short in funding them, Khayat said.
Universities are struggling now to find money to adequately support their operations, said Sen. Tom King, R-Hattiesburg, a member of Davis'' committee who voted against the tuition-cap proposition. He said legislators should not meddle in the schools'' tuition-setting policies.
College administrators are already trying to restrain tuition rates as state lawmakers have become increasingly annoyed about recent increases.
"They''ve heard the legislators'' concerns about tuition," King said.
Davis'' bill was promoted by Republicans Bryant and Pickering, who held a news conference last month to announce its introduction.
Tuition this year for Mississippi''s eight universities averages $4,740, which is $1,900 more than it was in 2000. However, the rate is about $526 below the $5,268 average for southern states, according to estimates made by the Mississippi Board of Institutions of Higher Learning staff.
Last year''s tuition for university undergraduate students in Mississippi was $4,563. It averaged $4,980 for students at all universities in the South, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, who co-sponsored the bill with Davis, said it''s become too expensive to go to college.
"You''re limiting students getting access to an education by every year increasing tuition," Brown said.
The tuition hike imposed by universities for the current school year was the 10th annual increase since 1997.
During the same period, the Legislature has cut the eight universities'' funding or given them little extra for seven of the last nine years. It shorted universities last year by about $47 million. They requested a $51 million increase but only got a $4 million boost.
The shortfall prompted the IHL board to increase tuition by an average of $179 for Mississippi residents.
However, Brown said the schools should shoulder more budget reductions like other areas of state government as Mississippi''s economy slumps deeper into recession.
"We''re in a pinch right now. There are things they can do to cut back," he said.
While universities will "shoulder our share of the burden," they don''t want to cut too much, said Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum.
One way to pull Mississippi out of recession, he said, is to put more state money into higher education. This helps provide a better-trained workforce and bring an influx of research dollars, he said.
"We''re a major part of growing and expanding the Mississippi economy," Keenum said.
The Senate Universities and Colleges Committee last week did approve a measure by Davis to authorize a $500 tax credit for annual tuition payments. The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration. Davis said he might try again to attach a compromise provision aimed at restraining tuition.
In addition to the tuition cap, the Universities and Colleges Committee rejected legislation aimed at assisting college students buy textbooks at discounted prices. The committee was told this would be unworkable and could actually result in higher book prices.
Senate Bill 2444 said university faculty must take into consideration the costs of textbooks they choose for classes before requiring them for their students. It also called for a university to try a program for letting students rent books rather than buy them.