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Community colleges say cuts could mean higher fees

By Jeff Amy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 1 2012 3:56 p.m. MST

JACKSON, Miss. — Leaders of Mississippi's community college system said Wednesday that the 5.5 percent cut in their budget proposed by Gov. Phil Bryant could lead to higher tuition, bigger classes and more part-time instructors.

They said any decrease in funding would only aggravate money problems the colleges have been struggling with, as the recession drove more students into classrooms at the same time state appropriations have fallen.

"Obviously one of the things you consider is tuition," said Clyde Muse, president of 13,600-student Hinds Community College, the state's largest two-year institution.

Community college tuition, which averages $2,174 this year, grew nearly 50 percent from 2003 to 2010. Mississippi incomes, by one measure, grew about 30 percent.

While the Legislature's own budget proposes to hold community college funding level at $233.3 million, Bryant's budget, released Tuesday, proposes $220.4 million. That's the standard 5.5 decrease he wants for most state functions.

The college system is asking for $314.8 million, including part of a long-promised funding increase, plus $11.5 million to add worker training for high school dropouts.

Bryant said he wants to find a way to transfer to colleges more job training money that's already collected through a tax on employers.

"We believe there is money there we can transfer from job force training," the governor said Tuesday.

Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board, said he didn't know what Bryant had in mind. A spokesman for Bryant did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

As is typical when times are hard, students have flocked to Mississippi's community colleges, with enrollment climbing 50 percent from 2000 to 2010.

While state support for the two-year schools has risen 14 percent from 2000 to this year, the amount of state money has not kept up with the enrollment increase. State aid has fallen 24 percent per student.

"Our enrollment skyrocketed while our budgets were cut," Clark said.

That means the Legislature has fallen far behind its legal pledge to raise community college funding per student to a point in between the $4,638 per student appropriated to K-12 schools and the $6,648 appropriated to regional universities such as Mississippi Valley State.

That amount, in 2010 numbers, would be $5,643 per student. Community colleges got $3,277 per student in 2010.

The colleges are asking to get halfway to the midpoint in 2013.

"We understand that money is tight and we understand that you can't hit the midlevel target, but what we're asking is for you to make us a priority," Clark told members of the House Appropriations Committee.

As part of the overall increase, the colleges also asked for $11.5 million to increase job training for high school dropouts who earn high school equivalency diplomas. Now, the colleges get $100,000 apiece to increase production of equivalency diplomas.

Meridian Community College President Scott Elliott said the money would pay not only for teachers, supplies and facilities, but also cover things like tutoring, child care and transportation for students.

Elliott pointed to success stories, including a woman who earned a high school equivalency diploma and then got a raise at her nursing home job. He said more training would help increase incomes and state tax revenues.

"I think we can transfer many of our citizens from societal liabilities to societal assets," he said.

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