By NATHAN GREGORY
The Mississippi Board of Trustees of Mississippi Public Universities approved a request Thursday from Mississippi State University to add a $50-per-semester capital improvements fee to student tuition beginning in the fall of 2013.
The extra $100 per academic year will be added on top of a 6-percent tuition increase MSU recently approved, making it a $6,622 price tag to attend the university full time in 2013-14.
MSU President Mark Keenum said the university’s decision to seek College Board approval was one reached after serious and deliberate reflection on the long-term economic realities that confront higher education in Mississippi.
“This fee is designed simply to give us a stable funding mechanism to help meet the needs of our students, faculty and staff,” Keenum said.
The fee, coupled with bond bill funding for construction, will be used to pay for the university’s plans to build a new, $37 million classroom facility with a parking garage. New classrooms and renovation of existing facilities, Keenum said, are necessary due to a near 20-percent spike in enrollment over the last five years.
“Had the Mississippi Legislature last year provided us with bond bill funding for new construction, MSU’s portion would not have been sufficient to proceed in a timely fashion on mission-critical new facilities that our students need to remain competitive while at the same time giving us the means to maintain the substantial campus infrastructure we already have,” Keenum said. “We sought this student-paid, student-supported new capital improvements fee to allow us to pay as we go for routine maintenance, repairs, renovations and the wear-and-tear realities of near 20 percent enrollment growth over the last five years.”
The University of Mississippi also requested and was granted a capital improvements fee at the same rate per semester.
Fees of this type are already in place in universities across the nation and in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Arkansas has in place a $120 capital improvements fee per semester for full-time students. The same is true for The University of Tennessee ($160), The University of Alabama ($108), Texas A&M University ($100), Louisiana State University ($89) and the University of Georgia ($80).
Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds said his main stipulation when discussing tuition-driven capital improvement funding with Keenum and UM Chancellor Dan Jones was that it was made clear that funds were going directly into facility construction and renovation.
“I didn’t want to tell students they were going to pay one cost in tuition and when they go to pay their bill they find out they have to pay tuition plus fees. In my conversation with Dr. Keenum and Chancellor Jones, they convinced me that the most transparent way to talk about how we use those dollars is to keep them separate from tuition,” Bounds said. “When we looked at how we were going to capture dollars needed to build facilities we needed to segregate them in a way so that everybody knows what we’re doing.”
MSU Student Association President Shelby Balius wrote a letter to the board in support of the fee, saying some buildings are showing signs of decline and there needs to be a secure source of funding for renovations and upkeep.
“The physical environment of a campus is important to students who study and live here, and it is also an important factor in determining where incoming students decided to attend college,” Balius said in the statement. “The establishment of this student fee not only provides for a steady flow of funding consistent with the level of enrollment, but also affords student leaders the ability to advise administrators on which projects should be prioritized based on the significance in students’ lives. The creation of a fee versus an increase in tuition ensures the funds raised through this fee campaign are used for their express purpose instead of being funneled into the University General Fund.”
MSU Vice President of Student Affairs Bill Kibler said the fee does not change the place the university’s standing in comparison to its peers in terms of quality education for a lower cost of attendance. MSU stands to generate approximately $1.7 million from the fee in an academic year, he said.
“The whole reason Mississippi State proposed this is to create a source of revenue for the university to continue to address the needs of campus related to enrollment growth. (The growth) puts a lot of demands on assuring we’re able to continue to offer adequate classroom space, housing and recreational space,” Kibler said. “I know Dr. Keenum has led the efforts to bring more much needed classroom space into campus, and the desire is to bring it as close to the center of campus as possible. The capital improvement fee could present a significant revenue source to move forward with that project sooner rather than later.”
MSU Director of University Relations Sid Salter said the fee will benefit MSU students in the long term because it will provide the university with the facilities needed to remain competitive with peer institutions. The new classroom facility is an example of how the university will follow through with that plan, he said.
“With 20 percent enrollment growth over the last five years, that building is not just needed; It’s overdue. It will have high tech green energy systems that will make it one of the most energy-efficient buildings on the campus. That’s a priority as well: trying to build facilities that can be operated efficiently and make wise use of taxpayer dollars,” Salter said. “Repair, renovation and maintenance of the taxpayer investment on the campus is a critical need, and it’s one that there is not presently a stable funding mechanism for. The fee makes sure buildings remain in a condition that are safe, comfortable and functional for the students and faculty we have on campus, and it makes sure the university stays competitive with other universities that are constantly updating their facilities.”