Southern Exposure: A look at Mississippi’s colleges and universities

By Aaron Rice
January 24, 2020

The sun light provides the best opportunity for our flowers to blossom. The warmth and light are critical for repair, growth, and blooming. Such is the case with another Mississippi treasure; our public higher education system and its eight colleges and universities. Perhaps nothing is more important to the future of our state than developing and preparing our best and brightest. 

Yet, we have had very little meaningful discussion about how we do that. I think that is because Mississippians treasure their colleges and universities at a deeper level than many other places. In many ways, these schools and towns represent our fondest memories and strongest bonds. We are reticent to question, challenge, or critique them because they are like precious heirlooms. But like our most valuable heirlooms plants, a pruning is necessary for a longer, healthier, more bountiful future. 

In an effort to provide both sun light and guidance for pruning, our organization, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, began a collaboration with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) about six months ago. The goal was to produce an independent, non-partisan review and analysis of higher education in the Magnolia State.

The results of that project will be presented to the public and to the media on February 5 at a luncheon at River Hills Club in Jackson. Tickets to the event can be purchased here. ACTA is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. 

The reason we chose to work with ACTA is because of their outstanding reputation and their critical mission: “the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across America to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of idea on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” Amen.

I encourage you to visit their website, examine their work, and look at their Board of Directors.

Some national trends should alarm us. According to the OECD, we spend more per student than any other country except Luxembourg, but we rank 22 of the 36 countries measured in terms of the percentage of young adults who have completed college.

Student loan debt in America is greater than $1.6 trillion, which is $600 billion more than our credit card debt. More than eleven million college borrowers are in forbearance or default.

In 2015, colleges and universities spent $11.5 billion on construction and maintenance, increasing higher education’s footprint by 21 million square feet. We’ve tripled space per student since the 1970s. Utilization data and future costs analysis portend financial problems.

We’re seeing big growth in non-academic employees on campus, without corresponding student body or faculty growth. This is happening all across the country as the administrators and non-academic programs proliferate. Long-term misallocation of resources leads to bad results. We should all be interested in reforming higher ed.

The report from ACTA will focus on four areas: corporate governance, curricula, financial stewardship, and freedom on campus. A few key issues to be discussed at the luncheon:

  • Graduation rates among several IHL universities are unacceptably low. 
  • No school in Mississippi currently requires students to complete a single course in American government, history, or economics. 
  • Is Mississippi’s higher education governance structure effective?
  • How much are students paying?
  • Where is the money going?
  • Do schools promote a free exchange of ideas?
  • What are students learning?

At the end of the report, there are 18 policy recommendations. Our job is to first make sure as many people as possible are aware of this study and then to work with leaders across the state, which includes trustees, alumni, donors, students, parents, and the legislature, to make sure policy ideas are turned into actions that can ensure Mississippi’s public colleges and universities are prepared for a long, healthy, bountiful future.

Our heirloom treasures deserve nothing less.

And we owe it to future generations to give them a chance to make their own fond memories and to build their own strong bonds. In a place with such powerful Southern Exposure and rich soil, we should be producing beautiful booms.  


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