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CLEVELAND, Mississippi—Conor Bell may give up on the Mississippi Delta.
Bell is a junior at a public university in the heart of this poorest corner of the poorest state in America—the birthplace of the blues. But the program that drew him here is being shut down.
Bell studies journalism, victim of newly announced cuts to save $1 million at this campus that will also claim foreign languages, theater arts, an athletic training program, mass communication, rhetoric, technical writing, and undergraduate majors in insurance and real estate.
“We may not have as many majors as business,” he said outside a Delta State University journalism classroom named for a local sportswriter who left his life savings to pay for journalism scholarships. “But we have a strong passion.”
In his “Fear the Okra” T-shirt—yes, the fruit of the plant that grows in the South, which serves as the university’s mascot—Bell was huddling with other students to plan a mock funeral for the canceled programs. But he’s not optimistic, and said he’s thinking of transferring someplace else.
More than 1,500 miles to the northeast, on a much colder campus carpeted with fallen leaves, the last group of geosciences majors at the University of Southern Maine hovered over satellite images in a computer lab with checkerboard tiles on the floor and a bedrock geologic map of Maine hanging from a wall.
This program—which leads to jobs in contamination cleanup, construction, and water and mineral exploration—has also come under the ax, along with modern and classical languages, arts and humanities courses, and applied medical sciences, among other things. The public university says those cuts will help save $16 million and preserve nursing, business, and other high-demand majors.
“Getting rid of science and technology when our future is heading in that direction—they should be the priority,” said Leah Percy, a senior studying geosciences. “A university should have a wide range of majors. Don’t keep dwindling it down. Not everyone wants to be a nurse.”
Yet 48 of the 50 states are making similar choices, having squeezed their higher-education budgets so tightly that they’re spending a collective 23 percent less, on average, than they did at the start of the recession on their public universities and colleges, according to the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
These include such places as Maine and Mississippi, with high rates of poverty and lower-than-average levels of college education. Even at their current pace of production, and before the cuts, neither state will come anywhere near the 60 percent of residents with postsecondary degrees that policymakers have set as a goal for 2025, by which time the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that 65 percent of new jobs will require them. The center estimates that the nation will fall five million short of the number of workers it needs with postsecondary education as soon as 2020.
In some counties in the Delta, fewer than 8 percent of adults have college educations, compared to the national average of 40 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation, one of the organizations pushing the 2025 goal. Statewide, the rate in Mississippi is 33 percent, and, in Maine, it actually declined in 2012, the last year for which the figure is available, to 39 percent, the foundation reports. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) Just to match the national average of the proportion of its population with degrees by 2025, Mississippi would have to nearly quadruple its number of university graduates.
Maine comes in 28th in median income, with nearly one out of five households reliant on food stamps, tying it with Michigan for the fourth-highest proportion in the country. Mississippi has the nation’s lowest median income, $33,073, according to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, and the highest poverty rate; incomes there have actually declined since 2008. It’s also second only to Georgia in the proportion of people who are unemployed.
“Why would we cut education in a place like the Mississippi Delta?” asks Patricia Roberts, Delta State’s lone journalism professor, whose own job is being eliminated.
The state’s eight public universities and 15 community colleges have appealed for their budgets to be increased by a combined $155 million in the fiscal year beginning next July—or about 15 percent—which will still leave them below where they were before the recession. Some of that is just to cover already-promised financial aid. The requests will be taken up by the 2015 legislature.
At best, key policymakers say, the colleges and universities will get less than they want. At worst, their budgets stand to be decimated by a lawsuit led by a former governor that could cost them a collective $312 million by forcing the state to live up to a long-ignored constitutional requirement to put that money into primary and secondary schools. Mississippi now spends $623 less per primary- and secondary-school student, per year, than it did before the recession, when adjusted for inflation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. This despite the fact that only 15 percent of eight graders score at or above proficient in math in the National Assessment of Education Progress, 17 percent in reading, and 14 percent in science.
There’s a formula for supporting higher education, too. In 2007, the Mississippi Legislature required that public colleges and universities be given $4,562 per student, per year, up from $3,432. The state is also well behind that goal. It also faces huge costs for upgrading infrastructure, including an estimated $2 billion backlog of needed road and bridge repairs. State agencies have collectively asked for about $1 billion in increased spending for the coming year.
Yet candidates for election and reelection, including incumbent Governor Phil Bryant, are talking about tax cuts that could further reduce the amount of money to pay for any of these things. There’s a push to cut the corporate income tax, too, though the state’s Department of Revenue reports that 103 of the 150 largest for-profit employers, and 80 percent of all corporations doing business in Mississippi, already don’t pay any.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in a post-election brief for members, predicted that newly seated policymakers in many other states will likely also seek to trim taxes and cut spending.
Those kinds of cuts have been fueling big jumps in tuition as the burden of paying for public higher education shifts to students and their families. Tuition at four-year public universities is up by 28 percent since 2008, the budget and policy priorities center says—more than 66 percent in Florida and Georgia, and more than 80 percent in Arizona.
Nor is it only Maine and Mississippi where public universities are eliminating programs and faculty. Pennsylvania cut 540 higher-ed jobs, Arizona 2,100, the University of North Carolina 493, and Louisiana State University 1,210, including 220 faculty. That has meant, among other things, the consolidation or elimination of 182 programs and departments in Arizona, and reduced the numbers of seats in courses at UNC by 16,000.
Maine and Mississippi “are the vanguard of what will happen to public higher education in many of the other 48 states, or already is happening in some of them,” said Howard Segal, a professor of history at the University of Maine flagship campus in Orono and a member of its faculty senate.
Delta State President William “Bill” LaForge said public universities are being forced to choose among their programs based on which provide the most bang for the dwindling buck.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” LaForge said. “We’re trying to trim the things we can’t afford to do.” Only 40 students are majoring in the programs that are being eliminated, the university said in a news release headlined, “Budget restructuring to bolster Delta State’s future.” Said LaForge: “Students are voting with their feet, and students don’t want journalism.”
The cuts are raising other contentious and disruptive issues. The American Association of University Professors said the layoffs of 50 faculty at the University of Southern Maine violate the longstanding traditions of tenure and shared governance on the basis of a budget shortfall some economics faculty dispute. And regional public universities like the University of Southern Maine and Delta State tend to enroll lower-income students, who are increasingly losing out on the kinds of programs wealthier students at private and flagship public universities take for granted.
“There’s not the debate about what college is for at Harvard. There’s a debate about what college is for at public universities that serve working-class students,” said Susan Feiner, vice president of the faculty union at the University of Southern Maine. “What they’re going after is the schools that have traditionally served as the gateways for lower-class people into jobs with economic opportunity.”
Even better-educated states are being warned that failing to put more money back into their public universities and colleges will hurt them economically. In a survey by a business group in Massachusetts—America’s best-educated state, according to the Census Bureau—69 percent of employers said they already can’t find enough workers with the right skills for jobs they need to fill, especially in high-tech fields, and a commission of politicians, university officials, and business leaders has urged an increase of $300 million a year in spending on public higher education, plus $4.2 billion in borrowing to pay for neglected maintenance after “years and years of insufficient funding.”
“At a time when the nation is trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, states should be investing more, not less, to ensure that our kids get a strong education,” said Michael Leachman, the budget and policy priority center’s director of state fiscal research.
College graduates earn more, pay more in taxes, read to their children at higher rates, and are less likely to need public assistance or go to jail, points out Hank Bounds, the Mississippi higher-education commissioner who is struggling to make that case.
“Because we’re so far behind, it is very difficult to recruit the types of companies that bring really high-wage jobs,” Bounds said. And those, he said, “are the best hope we have to ensure that our children and grandchildren stay here to work and live.”
Back in the Mississippi Delta, where abandoned homes and wind-scattered cotton litter the roadside, about half the population has left since 1940.
Catherine Kirk, like Conor Bell, may join them.
A senior journalism major at Delta State, Kirk said the program “has changed my life. I’ve seen it affect so many other people. It breaks my heart to see it go.”
She loves the Delta, she said. “I love this state. But there is so much holding us back.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Reproduction of this story is not permitted.