University lobbies state legislature for additional funding

Posted on Feb 19 2018 - 8:00am by Slade Rand

The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning has lost more than $107 million in state-appropriated funding since July 2016, and the University of Mississippi has joined the fight to reel that money back into the state’s education budget.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter visited the state Legislature with presidents from the seven other IHL-affiliated schools last month to request an additional $85 million be appropriated to the IHL this upcoming fiscal year. The IHL has gained 15,205 in full-time equivalent students across all eight schools since 2009, and lost $2,085 in appropriations per student. Vitter said the sought-after $85 million would bring the IHL’s budget closer to where it was two years ago, allow for faculty pay raises and reduce reliance on money generated from tuition.

“It’s really a time when we cannot afford continued cuts,” Vitter said. “We need to start talking about how we invest for the future, because education is an investment. It’s the most important investment that our state can make.”

Chancellor Vitter speaks on the university budget and his request to the state for more funding in his office at the Lyceum on Tuesday. Photo by Marlee Crawford

The IHL distributes state-appropriated funds to its universities each year according to a formula designed to recognize students’ progress in completing courses, weighted by the cost of teaching in each particular field. Science, engineering and health fields would likely carry a higher weight in this formula. Vitter said the decreasing state budget has disrupted the board’s use of the formula, and in order to uphold support for smaller schools, the university has had to sacrifice a portion of its share of funds.

“This university is underfunded according to what the formula suggests, and, of course, there have been budget cuts, so it’s just the worst situation for budget,” Vitter said.

Vitter said the university is committed to its role as a difference-maker in the state but is operating under a financial challenge.

“What people don’t realize is that we’ve really been cut to the bone and we are now threatening our basic infrastructure at a time when education is more important for Mississippi than ever,” Vitter said.

He said the last two years of budget cuts have made it difficult for the university to achieve its double-sided mission of keeping education accessible to everyone in Mississippi and maintaining quality as the state’s flagship university. Ole Miss is the only Carnegie R-1 classified university in the state, and, combined with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, receives the highest portion of IHL-allocated funding. In fiscal year 2018, the university and UMMC received $244 million of the IHL’s $668.1 million in state funding.

“We have to maintain those standards,” Vitter said. “We have to get the absolute best people and keep them here, and therefore, salary is an important part of that.”

America’s widespread education crunch

Vitter said other states have also suffered setbacks in their education budgets this last decade but have moved on and grown past them. Since 2016, the majority of Southeastern states’ legislatures have actually increased funding for higher education. Florida has seen an almost 16 percent increase in its education budget over two years, Tennessee’s funding has increased 12.5 percent and Alabama has gained 9 percent in state-appropriated funding. Meanwhile, higher education in Mississippi has experienced a 13.3 percent drop since 2016.

Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Larry Sparks said the challenges Ole Miss faces are not abnormal problems for a large public university, as national enrollment in higher education has trended upwards historically. When the GI Bill passed in 1944, enrollment in U.S. universities was split evenly between private and public institutions, but in 2015, nearly 75 percent of college students were enrolled in public universities. Furthermore, Sparks said Mississippi’s economy has grown faster than its educational capabilities.

“We have been forced to be ahead of the curve,” Sparks said.

Sparks said the university used to receive the overwhelming majority of its funding from state-appropriated monies but now relies upon tuition, fees and other sources. In 1984, 60 percent of the university’s education and general revenues came from state funding and just more than 30 percent came from tuition and fees. However, at the end of fiscal year 2017, the roles were reversed. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s education and general revenues now comes from tuition and fees, and less than 20 percent is generated by state funding.

“Today, non-residents provide more funding than our legislature,” Sparks said.

He said the increased reliance on tuition has made the competition of bringing in students and teachers alike much more fierce. Sparks said schools’ tuitions are now sticker prices, only further fueling the battle to keep residents in state and attract out-of-state students. As the price of operating a university as large as UM increases, the school has been forced to raise tuition and cut back on pay increases. Cost of attendance for out-of-state students in the 2016-17 school year was $37,874 and rose to $40,076 the next year.

Lobbying in Jackson

Last Wednesday, University Interim General Counsel Perry Sansing headed to Jackson to meet with other IHL representatives and state lawmakers as part of his regular duties to represent the school at legislative sessions. He said his task in lobbying on behalf of education funding begins around this time every year, when the Legislature turns to its finance bills. He and other IHL lawyers work as a team to explain the IHL board’s position and meet with legislators one on one.

“We are reminding legislators of what the chancellor and the presidents said,” Sansing said. “While we may have a lot of good things going on, we’ve got to continue that momentum, and continuing to cut higher education is going to diminish our ability to be as successful as we want to be.”

Sansing said he is optimistic about the IHL’s funding request and that the state’s revenue picture has improved recently. He said the Legislature understands how important higher education is to the future of Mississippi and the high return investing in education brings.

“Ole Miss has been able to grow for a lot of reasons, one of which is we have strong academic programs that draw students from all over Mississippi and even some out-of-state students, but the Chancellor and other presidents have talked about the problem that could arise when the state isn’t funding higher education at the level it needs to be funded at,” Sansing said.

As this legislative session enters the final stretch, both the House and Senate have shifted focus to the state budget. All budget and bond bills must pass the opposite chamber’s floor by March 13, when they will be sent back to the chambers in which they originated. After the House and Senate bills return to their respective chambers, legislators will have until the 16th to either concur or not concur, at which point the bills arrive in conference. Conference reports are due March 24, and all final budget and bond bills must be on the governor’s desk by March 27 at the latest. The session closes April 1, which is when the IHL will know how much of the desired funding it has earned back.

In Jackson, Sansing and the university are working with local firm Butler-Snow Advisory to lobby during the legislative session. Sidney Allen, the firm’s senior government relations advisor, said his strategy is consistent with past years’ as far as presenting and justifying the funding request.

“We are as well-positioned as I think we’ve ever been,” Allen said. “We’ve had a lot of legislative success in the last couple of years that our firm has been fortunate to be involved in.”

Allen said his team takes a realistic approach to lobbying on behalf of the IHL. He said the Legislature looks at education as a continuum across all of its levels, from K-12 to higher education, and that this legislature in particular has spent more on education than ever before in the state’s history.

“The budget is getting squeezed left and right, but if you take all education together, I think it’s somewhere around 60 percent of the budget,” Allen said.

The growing campus

Chancellor Vitter has been with Ole Miss since 2016. He was hired at a time when full-time equivalent enrollment across all IHL schools had been hovering below 70,000 for four years and state-appropriated funding per student was on a three-year climb toward $5,500 per student. Now, IHL schools are home to 75,184 full-time equivalent students who each represent $4,509 in state appropriations.

“When I started, we were basically right there on the cycle, and then by bad luck I guess the state’s been hit with budget cuts and the IHL system has gone in that direction,” Vitter said. “I saw this direction which I thought was at least promising, but you can’t win everything.”

While the state’s appropriated higher education funding has decreased more than 13 percent since 2016, the university’s expenses only continue to rise. Vitter said promoting faculty and awarding tenure costs the university $320,000 each year and the university’s health insurance cost will increase by more than $670,000 in this next year. Utility costs, covering waste disposal and other under-the-surface operations will increase more than $410,000 this next year alone. Without changing the current staff or student population, Vitter said the university is facing rising costs of more than $1.4 million in just those three areas.

Vitter agreed with his team’s confidence in the Legislature to approve the IHL’s request for additional funding in order to keep Mississippi on an upward trajectory.

“Fundamentally, education is the great enabler that can really lift a society and create that dynamic that leads to success which will sustain itself,” Vitter said.