November 15, 2012 11:12:52 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi's two largest universities are likely to win approval to impose a $50-a-semester fee on their students.
Members of a College Board committee unanimously approved the proposals Wednesday from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. The full board is scheduled to vote on the fee Thursday.
Leaders of the schools say they need money for buildings. In Ole Miss' case, that's a $50 million renovation and expansion of its student union. MSU plans a combination classroom and parking garage at the price of $37 million.
Charges would not apply to University of Mississippi Medical Center students in Jackson or to Mississippi State online students. Ole Miss estimates its fee would generate $1.83 million annually, while MSU estimates it would collect $1.7 million.
The extra $100 a year would be added next fall atop the tuition increase that the College Board has already approved for Ole Miss, bringing in-state costs to $6,640 next fall. That would be 7.4 percent more than $6,151 in-state students are paying this year. At MSU, the in-state price would rise to $6,622 including the already-slated tuition increase. That would be 7.6 percent above this year's tuition of $6,153.
Ole Miss raised tuition 6.8 percent before this school year, while MSU raised it 6 percent. Those were the latest in a series of relatively steep increases that the schools say were brought on by a pinched state budget. Bancorp South CEO Aubrey Patterson, chairman of the College Board's Finance Committee, said the only way to head off more steep tuition increases is for the Legislature to appropriate more money for universities.
"We're not overspending on the product we provide," Patterson said. "We provide a quality product. In my opinion, we have a revenue problem."
Traditionally, the schools relied on federal earmarks and bond money from the Legislature to pay for many buildings. But Congress has shut off the earmark spigot, while the Legislature failed to approve any bonds last year. Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said that leaves students as the only way to finance projects.
"If you say 'No,' you're saying to us you basically don't want us to grow," Jones told the Finance Committee.
The College Board has mandated that universities present one bottom-line figure of tuition, avoiding students confused by adding fees to tuition. Jones and MSU President Mark Keenum said that it would be better if the fee were "transparent" so students, parents and faculty members would understand what the money is for.
"Initially, I was opposed to the idea, but after having conversations with both campuses, I became convinced that it was the right path to take," said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds.
Mississippi's six other universities are not currently seeking building fees, Bounds said. However, all the campuses say they have steep capital needs.
Committee member Bob Owens also questioned approving a cost increase outside the College Board's normal once-a-year cycle. However, Bounds and the universities said the schools need time to explain the fee and get ready to collect it.
Ole Miss said it would use its money to pay for the $50 million renovation and expansion of its student union built in 1977. Jones said Ole Miss had 7,000 students when the union was built, compared to 17,000 today.
MSU said it would use the money to pay for a $37.5 million building with 90,000-square-feet of classrooms and a 60,000-square-foot parking garage. Keenum said the school has $13 million in bond money from a previous year to pay for part of the building, and wants to use the fee to service debt on the additional $24 million. That debt service would cost $1.2 million, leaving about $500,000 that MSU could add to its existing $3 million a year repair and maintenance budget.