HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Graduating high school seniors: does the University of Southern Mississippi have a deal for you!
The 14,500-student school has cut annual out-of-state tuition and fees from $16,529 this year to $9,964 next fall, even as it increases the cost for Mississippi residents by 4 percent, to $7,963.
The idea is to reverse a 2,000-student enrollment dip by pricing a USM education below some public universities in nearby states, and attract enough high-schoolers from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to raise overall revenue.
"I really believe that this pricing strategy is going to open us up to people looking at the University of Southern Mississippi from places we traditionally haven't drawn from," said Douglas Vinzant, USM's vice president for finance and administration.
Southern Mississippi is joining a trend: The Associated Press counted at least 50 public colleges and universities nationwide that have lowered nonresident tuition by more than 10 percent in recent years without making similar reductions for in-state students.
Many are squeezed by falling numbers of traditional college-age students. High school graduates have fallen nationwide since 2011 and won't peak again until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.
Some universities in rural areas with declining populations — including Mississippi's Alcorn State, Delta State and Mississippi Valley State — now charge all students the in-state rate, abolishing out-of-state surcharges.
Some schools that get no shortage of applicants are sharply increasing non-resident tuition, and also getting criticized. The University of California charges out-of-staters much more, but critics allege Californians are being cast aside to offset state budget cuts by making room for more higher-paying outsiders.
"State disinvestment in public higher education compels public universities to behave like private universities by focusing on attracting paying customers," concluded Ozan Jaquette, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies college pricing, in a study of flagship state institutions he co-authored last year.
The AP documented the across-the-board price cuts at schools such as West Texas A&M University, Michigan's Lake Superior State University, and Nebraska's Peru State College. Most hope revenue from additional students will outweigh expenses, much like airlines sell empty seats cheaply to fill undersold flights.
"For institutions with additional capacity to serve students, there is an emerging trend of rethinking out-of-state tuition levels," said Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
USM has cut staff, but still has a larger university's buildings and faculty. "I'm telling you, as the CFO, this is what we have to do or else we're going to have to reduce our footprint in terms of academic programs," Vinzant said.
Wynter Seymour, a theater major from suburban New Orleans, had her heart set on going out of state. It was USM's waiver of out-of-state charges that led her to become a Golden Eagle in Hattiesburg, a short drive up Interstate 59.
"I wanted to find not the closest out-of-state option, but the one that was the cheapest," Seymour said.
One widely noticed move was made by the University of Maine in Orono, which charges high-achievers from nine other states the same tuition they'd pay at their home state's flagship. This saves them $12,000 to $17,000 from Maine's out-of-state tuition of $29,498; applicants with lower grades and test scores get $9,000 off.
"The state of Maine needs young people, and we're not producing enough of them," said University of Maine Provost Jeffrey Hecker. "Why don't we just be upfront about what students can expect? No more haggling."
It's working: Applications jumped, freshman enrollment rose 9 percent to 2,260 students this fall, and Maine is spending less on financial aid now as a share of the typical tuition sticker price than it did in 2015.
But complaints continue elsewhere. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities has attracted more students from beyond the upper Midwest since it slashed out-of-state tuition in 2008, but under legislative pressure it agreed this year to raise rates again and subsidize Minnesotans with any additional revenue.
Even at USM, some in-state students wonder if they're being left behind.
"I wish there were more scholarship opportunities for nontraditional students," said Michelle Formby, a 30-year-old sophomore from nearby Petal who's studying special education. "What about the people who live here?"
Vinzant says new pricing is meant to help Mississippians.
"The whole point of this effort is to raise revenue so we can invest it in the quality of education for Mississippi kids," he said. "It is not anything more complicated than that."
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