Terri Ferguson Smith
These are good days for the University of Mississippi, according to Dr. Daniel Jones, who took the reins at the state's oldest public university in 2009.
Jones, along with Tom Eppes, chief communications officer, UM, recently stopped in Meridian while traveling through the state to share news of the university's success.
While enrollment is declining in universities across the country, including in Mississippi, Jones said, numbers are up at UM.
"Enrollment is rising rapidly at the University of Mississippi," Jones said. "This year we have more than 22,000 students in all of our locations. That's the largest enrollment ever, in any university in Mississippi."
Jones said he believes that what is good for UM, is also good for the state overall. The university is located in Oxford in the northern part of the state, but Jones said he doesn't want its location to deter students from the central and eastern part of Mississippi from considering UM.
"I recognize that in this part of the state, in eastern Mississippi, there are some very fine universities here that are close by and have very good options for students," Jones said. "Just as I wouldn't want students in north Mississippi to pass on the opportunity to think, 'would MUW or Mississippi State be good choices for me,' I hope that students in this part of the state will contemplate whether the University of Mississippi may be the best fit for them."
Jones credits the recent upswing in enrollment to several factors.
"When we ask students why they chose the University of Mississippi," Jones said, "they tell us first and foremost, the strength of the academic programs."
What Jones described as a strong collegiate experience also draws students.
"That collegiate experience is everything from a pretty campus to major college sports, arts, and the opportunity to make friends for life and maybe meet your husband or wife," Jones said.
Value is another key component for students, Jones said, who want to know that they are investing their time and efforts into something that will pay off.
"It has been a difficult economy and it's an uncertain economy now," Jones said. "Uncertain politics make the uncertainty of the economy more meaningful. Many families who might have the ability to send their children to more expensive, private schools these days are looking to stronger public universities as an option, rather than a child going to Vanderbilt or Emory or Harvard or Yale, a family may look at them coming to the honors college at the University of Mississippi instead."
The primary focus of UM remains the education of Mississippi students, Jones said.
"We are pleased that in this large enrollment, that about two-thirds of our students are from Mississippi," Jones said. "Our highest priority is serving the needs of Mississippi but we are also proud that we have students from all 50 states and from 93 countries who are a part of our student body."
Jones said he believes that having such a diverse student body creates a strong academic environment for Mississippi.
"We believe that is is useful and helpful for Mississippians to be educated in an environment where there is this strong racial diversity, diversity of political thought, religious thought, diversity of language," Jones said. "We think that creates a healthy learning environment and we're pleased that we are attracting students from everywhere. This year's freshman class is our largest freshman class ever and it's the largest freshman class in the history of the state."
This year's freshman class totaled 3,579. Jones said three years ago, the demand for student placement at UM was larger than its supply.
"We continued to accept every minimally qualified Mississippian at the university. So if the student could be admitted to any of our eight universities, they can be admitted to the University of Mississippi," Jones said. "We want to keep that door open for them. We began limiting the number of out-of-state students who we would accept into our freshman class. We began selecting from among the students who applied to the university, to select the strongest and best students. That's been part of our success in improving the academic quality of the students who come."
The university is also working to make sure that students who enroll as freshman have every opportunity possible to succeed, he said.
"We have put in place academic programs to help freshmen students who come to us less than fully prepared so they can be successful in our environment. Some of those things include smaller classes for those students, faculty mentors, and student mentors," Jones said. "The number that we are proudest about this fall, of all of our statistics — is our freshmen to sophomore retention rate."
Four years ago the freshman to sophomore retention rate was 79 percent. This year that number is 86 percent, Jones said.
"We know that if a student makes it from the freshman to the sophomore year, they are going to make it; almost all of those students are going to graduate," Jones said. "The vulnerable year is that first year.
The university is continuing to develop nationally recognized, quality academic programs, he said. Jones is particularly proud of the university's recent accomplishments in its School of Accountancy, which recently earned designation as the fourth-ranked school of accountancy in the U.S.
"If we had a fourth-ranked football team, your paper wouldn't have enough ink to spend on it. Your readers would be demanding more pages for Ole Miss football," Jones joked.
"That's quite an achievement for anywhere but when you think about, in a resource-challenged state and a resource-challenged university, to have that kind of performance is really remarkable," Jones said.
The economy causes ripples, sometimes waves in student enrollment, according to Jones, who said beginning in 2008 there was an uptick in enrollment in community colleges and four-year universities across the country. Beginning in 2011, that began to come down when the jobs market began to improve.
"That bump through a recession can only last so long because frankly, what is happening is people who don't have jobs are borrowing money to go to school. You can only sustain that for so long. As the jobs begin to pick up, students will choose not to go to college," Jones said. "I think this recession is different. It's the first major recession we've had in our country where families who are the most vulnerable, that the federal assistance, through Pell grants, is not paying the full way."
In the past, Jones said Pell grants were devised to provide all of the support for tuition but now they are only paying a portion of tuition because state funding for education has fallen.
That gap, while it may only be a few hundred dollars, Jones said, creates an insurmountable obstacle for some students.
"For middle class families who do not have the full assistance of Pell, as we incrementally raise tuition rates — our tuition rates are among the lowest in the country but they are now high enough to become an impediment for Mississippi families to not be able to send their kids to school," Jones said.
At UM, most students still want to live away from home, Jones said.
"Online is a growing area for a lot of universities and we have some of that but most of our growth is finishing high school, going to college and looking for a residential experience," Jones said.
The university is also aware of its responsibility to the state to help solve problems such as K-12 education and providing leadership for manufacturing facilities, Jones said.
"K-12 education is a challenge. We have lots of good teachers in the state but not enough.
"Along with our colleagues at Mississippi State University, we have established the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching program," Jones said. "It provides full scholarships for very bright students who would qualify to be in our honors colleges who will commit to teaching in public schools in Mississippi for five years after they graduate from college."
UM is concentrating on this first wave of students who want to be high school math and English teacher, Jones said.
"These are kids who could major in anything on campus," Jones said. "They've got very strong academic records."
The university has also established, with state support, the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence.
"This is a multi-disciplinary program. Students in this program can major in engineering, business, or in accountancy and minor in one or the other, Jones said. "We will produce engineers for the focus in manufacturing who also have business and accounting skills. We will produce business leaders and accountants who have a minor in engineering with a focus in manufacturing."
Just as community colleges have an opportunity to provide the skilled labor for manufacturers in Mississippi, the universities have an opportunity to produce the leadership for manufacturing, he said.