By BECKY GILLETTE / Hattiesburg Business Today
The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) wants more Golden Eagles from out of state. With in-state enrollment declining for each of the past four years, USM plans to attract more students by reducing out-of-state tuition by $6,565 beginning next fall.
Out-of-state tuition will fall from $16,529 this year to $9,964 in the fall of 2017. That will make tuition lower at USM than in-state tuition at many universities in surrounding states.
Currently USM has about 14,500 students, down from more than 16,000 four years ago. Attracting more out-of-state students would help prevent the need for downsizing, steep hikes in resident tuition and\or asking for more state funding.
“Our principal goal is to enhance the quality of education for in-state students,” said USM Vice President for Finance and Administration Doug Vinzant. “We want to do that in a way that minimizes the cost increase for residence students and doesn’t ask the legislature and taxpayers to pay more. Our legislature has been very supportive of higher education compared to the taxpayer support in other places.”
Some states have more students than they can serve, Vinzant said. A good example is Texas, which graduates more college students each year than Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia combined.
Mississippi graduates about 27,000 high school students per year, a figure that expected to slightly decline in the next five years. In contrast, Texas annually produces more than 320,000 high school graduates, a figure that is expected to increase to 360,000 by 2023-24.
“We are only two states away — a four to six hour drive — from major metro areas in Texas,” Vinzant said. “With tuition pricing, there is a sticker price, and then there is net tuition, which is the difference between the tuition price and what students pay as a result of scholarships or waivers. What we are trying to do is bring the sticker price closer to the net tuition price, and also make that rate competitive with resident rates in states where they have more students than they can serve.”
USM has thousands of alumni living in the Dallas\Fort Worth and Houston areas, and by participating in the Conference USA Athletic Conference is regularly in the marketplaces of Texas competing with those schools.
“We have brand name athletic recognition and an existing alumni base,” Vinzant said. “The University of Texas and Texas A&M will all have tuition north of $11,000 for in-state students by the fall of 2017 when the new USM rates will take effect. So by pricing lower than that, we are giving our recruiters an opportunity to say, ‘Take a look at our school. You can go here and get a great education and it will cost you less than staying in state’.”
Vinzant said lowering out-of-state tuition is an avenue to try to grow their revenue while keeping prices low for resident students.
“There is marginal cost for enrolling out-of-state students,” he said. “We have capacity in terms of faculty and facilities. When we enroll out-of-state students, there is net tuition revenue that goes to enhancing the education and services for in-state students.”
With USM the largest economic engine of the Hattiesburg area, enrollment at the college has a big impact on the fortunes of many different types of businesses including restaurants, grocery stores, and apartment complexes.
“There is no question as we grow enrollment that it has a direct economic benefit to the surrounding environment,” Vinzant said. “An economic study we was released earlier this fall estimated that USM has an economic impact of $600 million per year. We actually have multiple locations, so there is an impact in each of the communities we serve.”
There are some programs such as nursing at USM where there is limited enrollment. But Vinzant said providing more competition from students from other areas could enhance the classroom experience.
“We will be able to recruit higher achieving students,” he said. “That impacts the quality of the classroom experience. The better quality student, the higher level of interaction there is. There is no question about it. Expanding our ability to educate and provide a quality experience for in-state students is what this is all about.”
Kate Howard, assistant vice president and dean of admissions at USM, said it will be huge to increase their relevance to the out-of-state market.
“Obviously, we are in a prime location to attract non-resident students from all over this region, particularly South Alabama and Louisiana,” Howard said. “We are within a 1.5-hour drive from some major metro areas like New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala. We certainly think offering lower tuition will be helpful in attracting students from those regions. This price point makes us more affordable than most of our competitors in our bordering states.”
Howard said it is also helpful that the university has done so much to enhance facilities and curriculum offerings at USM Gulf Park on the Coast.
Howard said more affordable tuition could do more than bring additional students to campus.
“Bringing students to USM from all over the country allows residents to receive a more rich education based on being exposed to people outside of the State of Mississippi,” she said. “If you live in a residence hall and come into contact with students from Illinois or Texas, that makes your college experience richer and more unique.”
That could also be true for exposure to students from other countries. Foreign students will pay the non-resident rate.
“We do have a number of international students on campus and we hope that population will continue to grow,” Howard said.
While other schools around the country have adopted similar strategies to be more competitive attracting out-of-state students, USM is the first public research university in Mississippi to take this action. Smaller universities in the state such as Delta State University, Valley State and Mississippi University for Women have eliminated out-of-state tuition all together.