Mississippi college attendance drops

There is a disturbing trend unfolding at Mississippi’s universities: Fewer people are attending them.

In September 2016, the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) reported record fall enrollment of 83,016 at the eight universities and the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). Every school added students except for UMMC, where enrollment declined by 21.

Enrollment has plunged since then. IHL said recently that the fall 2019 enrollment was 77,896. That’s down nearly 1,300 students from a year ago, and down about 5,100 from the record set just three years ago.

Jackson State University has been hit the hardest. Enrollment there was 9,800 in both 2015 and 2016, but by 2018 it had fallen to 7,250. It was down again in the most recent report, to 7,020.

Mississippi Valley State University also is down, from a peak of 2,502 students in fall 2016 to just 2,147 this year. But the most surprising decline is at the University of Mississippi. In 2016 its enrollment, including 3,000 students at the medical center, totalled 24,250. This year that was down to 22,273, or almost 10 percent.

Mississippi State’s enrollment has grown by about 600 in the past three years, from 21,622 in to 2016 to 22,226 today. The big winner, though, is Delta State University. Its enrollment is up by nearly 200 this year, to 3,761, from the state’s high-water mark of 2016.

Among the other universities, Alcorn State is down a couple of hundred since 2016, Mississippi University for Women is down about 150 and the University of Southern Mississippi is down about 400.

Overall, the state’s universities had six percent fewer students this year than they did three years ago. If this worrisome trend continues, it could put the finances of the state’s smaller universities at greater risk, and it could be evidence that Mississippi’s brain drain is not beginning when students graduate from college — but when they’re deciding which school to attend.

There are plenty of possible reasons behind this. For starters, advanced degree enrollment spiked upward after the Great Recession a decade ago. Maybe the latest figures are an overdue correction to that.

Also, college is not getting any cheaper. Mississippi is the nation’s poorest state, and it may be that more students or families have decided college is not worth $20,000 or more of debt.

Finally, and perhaps most concerning, the enrollment trends may be a signal that, for whatever reason, fewer students are finding a Mississippi college education appealing.

Maybe the growth of online education is playing a role, since the cost for students at one of the internet institutions is a fraction of what somebody would pay to attend a brick-and-mortar school. Some of the universities, such as Ole Miss, have done a good job of attracting residents of other states. If this changes, and fewer out-of-state students pick a Mississippi university, it is bound to put more pressure on the schools’ prices. That is not what Mississippi families need.

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