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2013 October 28 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : Miss. Colleges Seeking Funding Hikes from Legislature

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s eight public universities are seeking an incremental increase in their budget in 2015, while community colleges are reaching to redeem long-delayed promises.

The College Board asked the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to increase its operating budget by $32 million, or 4.4 percent. But the Community College Board is seeking $97 million, a 41 percent increase, as Mississippi’s 15 community colleges try to move toward funding levels lawmakers promised in 2007 that have never been reached.

State agencies are presenting requests to the 14-lawmaker panel, setting the stage for negotiations that won’t intensify until the 2014 Legislature begins. The spending plan lawmakers write will begin July 1.

Both universities and community colleges said funding cuts pressured them to raise tuition during the recession at the same time enrollments were ballooning.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said that of the $32 million that the universities asked for, $20 million would go toward the new funding formula that the College Board adopted in April. The formula is meant to distribute state aid based on how many students complete courses, with the recognition that some sorts of courses cost more than others.

Because shares of funding among universities had been frozen for years, the College Board worked in the first year of the formula to raise funding levels for the universities that were farthest behind. But Bounds said more adjustment is needed, meaning that the overall 5.7 percent increase in aid to universities would be distributed variably. If the board got $20 million, it would boost the Mississippi University for Women’s state aid by 9.3 percent, for example, while holding funding at the University of Southern Mississippi almost level.

Bounds said the goal is to raise the lowest funded universities to the level of the highest funded.

“It only makes sense that we bring everyone up to the same level,” he said. “Even the institutions that receive the most funds are underfunded.”

Community college officials urged lawmakers to make good on a promise to raise funding per student for the two-year schools to a level at the midpoint between per student funding for K12 schools and universities. Right now, community colleges get less state money per student than K12 schools.

The community colleges want $87 million to go toward mid-level funding, which would cut the gap in half between the present level and the goal. College leaders say that money would help them to hold down tuition, increase faculty salaries and broaden career and technical education offerings.

The colleges are also seeking $10 million to improve counseling and job training for students who enroll in high-school equivalency classes.

“That’s the official ask, we know we’re not going to get it,” said Eric Clark, the executive director of the Community College Board.

But with state tax collections significantly exceeding budget goals, Clark says there’s hope of significant investment.

“There’s money in the bank for the first time in several years,” Clark said.

Both Clark and Bounds encouraged lawmakers to dream big, saying more Mississippians with job training and college credentials would be a big economic boost not only to individuals but to the state’s economy and tax collections.

“It is the best thing the state can do to ensure we are competitive as a state,” Bounds said.

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