Higher Ed Quandary — Quality Versus Costs

My friend and unintentional mentor Robert Khayat, the former University of Mississippi Chancellor, eloquently and effectively champions the inestimable value of quality higher education to Mississippi’s children and, ultimately, to our prosperity and quality of life. You can glimpse the remarkable impact of his direct efforts and intentional mentorship by reading the 2004 and 2011 strategies of Blueprint Mississippi.

For the 12 years I served on the IHL Board of Trustees my stodgy rejoinder was to agree, but with a caveat – quality higher education should be affordable. In the state with the lowest per capita income, higher education should be affordable to our many children of limited means.

Thus, while the Chancellor championed the greater good of higher appropriations for universities, I rummaged through data dumps for ways to cut costs, hold down tuition, and minimize program duplication.

You see, for 25 years rising costs in higher education have outpaced inflation more than three to one. Spotlighting this trend was an August article in The Economist entitled “The College – Cost Calamity.” It stated, “A crisis in higher education has been brewing for years. Universities have been spending like students in a bar who think a Rockefeller will pick up the tab.”

Now comes Dr. Hank Bounds, Commissioner of Higher Education, telling the Legislative Budget Committee, “We’ve made a lot of cuts. We have consolidated programs. Now we have hit a wall.” He added, “We are absolutely in a crisis” that will ultimately impact quality.

Bounds’ plea is strong, but the numbers paint a less calamitous picture.

Yes, from 2006 to 2011 state appropriations to IHL fell $100 million while student enrollment jumped 11%. But, hefty tuition hikes brought in $131 million more revenue and federal funding increased by $101 million. Indeed, overall IHL revenue went up. Excluding medical center patient fees, revenues increased 17% despite reduced state funding.

The Economist warns that universities need to control costs more: “Timidly trimming a bit from every department each year, in the hope that good times return, will not work. Departments and courses must be shed and whole campuses merged or shuttered.”

Instead of bold changes, Bounds wants the Legislature to increase IHL appropriations by $72 million. This would come on top of an 8.5% tuition increase this fall and a projected increase between 5 percent and 6.9 percent next year.

Meanwhile, Tennessee just took a courageous step. It created a website that shows actual first-year earnings for college graduates. Taxpayers can go to the site (http://esm.collegemeasures.org/esm/tennessee/) and see, for example, the average first-year pay for an undergraduate business major from the University of Tennessee ($39,893).

Making IHL costs and benefits more transparent might help legislators …and taxpayers… better value ever more costly quality higher education.

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