Dr. Christopher Cone


 While higher education everywhere is impacted by rapid changes in consumer needs, technology, demographics, and economic pressures, some recent developments in Mississippi’s higher education contexts offer a helpful case study for assessing several challenges that many higher ed institutions are now encountering. Discussions here focus on public institutions, though the challenges engaged here are not at all foreign to private institutions. Both must adapt if they are to sustain, and yet sustaining for the sake of sustaining provides little value. At the core is the need for missional value propositions that are both compelling and measurably attainable. While there is no shortage of obstacles to a value proposition that is excellent in theory, practice, and perception, three potential obstacles are considered here: (1) assessing and communicating the value of higher education, (2) current funding models and problematic incentivization, and (3) demographic trends.


Mississippi Senate Bill 2726, proposed in early 2024, mandated the closure of three state universities, based on evaluation of factors including: “(a)  Enrollment data and degree attainment percentage; (b)  Federal aid, including grants provided for scholarship and research; (c)  Tuition rates and scholarship endowments; (d) Degrees offered, including graduate degrees and doctorate degrees, or other professional degrees; (e)  An institution’s economic impact on the local community, region and state; (f) Any additional purposes that the institution currently serves to the state and its citizens, including providing medical services, agriculture research, or engineering research or services; and (g)  Any other special factors that the board believes the institution offers that cannot be easily replaced or replicated.”[1]

While the bill has not passed, it draws attention to legislators’ factors of evaluation reflecting their perception of the value proposition of higher education in Mississippi. These factors are almost entirely tied to economic measures, which is not unexpected, since the legislature has to consider fiscal responsibility and guide accordingly. Further, it is demonstrable that one’s level of education is a predictor of employment status and wage earning.[2] In a spring General Faculty Meeting, Mississippi State University President, Mark Keenum referred to MSU as a “powerful economic engine this state needs.”[3]

But there is more to educational value than simply the fiscal benefit.

Jackson State University’s Dr. Rod Paige illustrated that there is more benefit from higher ed than simply the economic impact, observing that, “There are many ways to economic and social success. My claim is the greatest of them all is higher education.”[4]

What Paige asserted, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) seems to effectively illustrate. MGCCC affirms as part of its mission that it, “…embraces lifelong learning, productive citizenship, service learning, and leadership development in a dynamic and innovative learning environment.”[5] At least several of these commitments reflect an understanding of the value of education as extending beyond simply the economic impact. The MGCCC Strategic Plan acknowledges that “political and economic pressures have increased accountability and brought into question the value of postsecondary education, especially workforce readiness, cost, and access.”[6] In order to meet these challenges, the plan recognizes that “the College must shift to a more student-centered approach wherein we ensure the institution is ‘student ready’ instead of questioning if students are ‘college ready.’”[7]

However, in its value proposition statement, the plan speaks of belonging and inclusion, helping students set goals and stay on track, advising for life needs and not just academic ones, and providing a strong sense of community.[8] While these are all admirable and needed, there is no messaging regarding the overall value of education beyond its economic impact. Further emphasis in the plan on economic impact includes the affirmation that, “The College will cultivate economic prosperity on the Gulf Coast by serving as the catalyst for local and regional workforce development initiatives.”[9] This seems the value proposition for the community – positive economic impact. The economic emphasis is underscored with economic contribution as the final good, and education as the instrumental good: “MGCCC will become the primary organization that provides synergy for the Gulf Coast economy by anticipating and meeting the educational needs of all constituents.”[10] The end is benefit to the economy, the means is quality and anticipatory education.

In these affirmations, MGCCC illustrates the ongoing tension between economic priority, outcomes, and accountability and meta-economic concepts such as the lifelong learning, productive citizenship, service learning, and leadership development it embraces.

Priorities, Value Alignment, and Communication

There endures a tension between the traditional emphases of higher education, purposed for critical thought, citizenship, and overall stewardship of knowledge and resources, and the more contemporary pragmatic economic needs and focus. Yet, this tension does not need to be a dichotomy. Both can be effectively served if priorities of the two sectors (educational and economic) are aligned through effective communication of needs, priorities, commitments, and resources.

Still, effective student centered education means that the student engages in and receives training that equips them for more than being a participant in an economic system, but helps equip them for all that they will encounter in their lives. If education is not engaging at that level, then it is not student centered. Education institutions bear the challenge, then, of serving learners, while recognizing that the institution must provide an acceptable value proposition to the funding stakeholders (including taxpayers, legislators, institutional stakeholders, and students).

Communication becomes vital in this context, as each stakeholder group may have different priorities and perceptions of value. The more effective the institution is in understanding and communicating in a way that addresses these diverse priorities, the better they are equipped to demonstrate their positive impact.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • Priorities must be transparent and communicated clearly.
  • Communication must be deliberate and targeted for specific stakeholder groups.
  • Partnerships and external relationships should be pursued where there is likely high value alignment.

The Potential Conflict of Interest

It is a simple business principle that the funder is the real client. If, for example, an educational program is offered tuition-free to the student, but the program is entirely subsidized by government appropriated funding, then those doing the appropriating become the client. Of course, ultimately the government has no money that does not come from the taxpayers, and consequently, the taxpayers are the government’s client, so to speak. The less financial investment on the part of the student, the less the institution is immediately financially incentivized to serve the interests of the student, and thus appears a significant potential conflict of interest. Further, the more regulation and accountability by “the client” the less student centered the education tends to be. This kind of potential conflict of interest does not make student centered education impossible, but it makes it much more difficult and demands an institution be willing to choose the student over the funding-client when a dichotomy arises.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • The institution must be convicted of its true end user, and must develop operating policy to support and protect that.
  • The institution must take extreme caution to maintain fidelity in communications with all stakeholder groups regarding its ultimate value proposition.


In a recent report, the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office suggests a significant inefficiency in current funding models for higher education:

 Mississippi taxpayers traditionally fund the state’s public universities without regard for the degree programs that are most advantageous for the state’s economy. By using this funding method, taxpayers give public universities the same amount of money to educate a Dance student as a Computer Engineering student (emphasis mine). However, many of the high-value programs are also more expensive to operate. For example, an Engineering program is more expensive to operate than a Sociology program. Because of the cost differential, universities are incentivized to enroll students in cheap-to-operate programs instead of expensive, high-value programs.[11]

One of the consequences of this approach to funding is “brain drain” from the state as only 50% of college graduates continue to work in the state of Mississippi three years past graduation, as many with specialized skills leave the state for higher paying opportunities. This brain drain is detrimental, then, to the state and the taxpayers who fund the education.

Eight of the top ten programs in which graduates are more likely to remain in Mississippi for three years after graduation are in the education sector (the other two are dental hygiene and nursing), while the top ten programs in which graduates are more likely to leave the state include earth sciences, business, engineering, chemistry, and marketing – painting a picture of a systemic educational model designed (unintentionally) to export specialists to other states.[12] Of course, this could create long term workforce challenges for the exporting state.

The report concludes by recommending that, “The Legislature should create a study committee of workforce experts—like Texas did—to outline the most- and least-needed programs and design a university funding structure with this in mind.”[13] In June 2023, Texas changed its community college funding structure from enrollment-based (like Mississippi) to outcome-based, more directly funding programs that meet the needs of the Texas economy, including “high-demand fields where employers are looking for skilled employees.”[14]

Elsewhere, auditor White affirmed that “Mississippi taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize useless majors.”[15] White’s comments invite the question of what constitutes useless and useful. At least when it comes to taxpayer funding of higher education, useful means fiscal benefit for the state.

Prioritization of Workforce Outcomes

As funding pressures are increasingly based on workforce outcomes, there is a natural deemphasis on liberal arts and generalization. An increasing labor deficit in skilled professions (earth sciences, business, engineering, chemistry, and marketing, for example) likewise focuses attention on those needed skills and draws attention away from general skills. Higher ed institutions are (at least in the near term) financially incentivized by current funding models (that fund programs equally) to market and enroll learners in the lowest cost (to the school) programs, regardless of their end user value.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • Reposition general education and liberal arts, identifying value for practical workforce and economic benefit (soft-skills, critical thinking, and problem solving for example) while also helping to educate stakeholders on the social and other advantages of such skills and programs.
  • Commit to continuous improvement in assessment; identify and invest in programs most directly contributing  to the institutional mission, divest of those that aren’t contributing. Resulting heightened institutional integrity and competitive advantage in emphasized programs can lead to expansion of stakeholder groups.


Diversity and Inequity

While all states are facing intense challenges in promoting equity, Mississippi seems especially challenged. Recent data underscores Mississippi as having one of the largest diversity gaps in teacher prep and teacher representation in the country, for example.[16] This is just one area that Mississippi is demonstrably in need with respect to diversity and equity, and it would not be surprising that any attempt at resolution will be associated with significant cost. “Public universities in Mississippi budgeted at least $23.44 million on DEI programs from July 2019 to May 2023. Of this amount, public universities in Mississippi budgeted at least $10.95 million in state funds and at least another $12.48 million through federal and private grants. Public universities in Mississippi collectively budgeted over 60% of reported DEI funds each year for employee salaries—not directly for students— while DEI budgets grew at least 47% since July 2019.”[17]

While progressives seek to address inequity through DEI programs and conservatives seek to apply free market principles, the problem has not been resolved through legislative action, instead demanding institutional and individual responsibility. “Embracing diversity of thought, cultural background experience, and identity helps to foster inclusive and intellectually enriched campus communities that maximize opportunities for success among all students and employees”[18] Educators and their institutions must determine what impact they are committed to having, and pursuing that impact regardless of legislation either promoting or prohibiting specific forms of DEI policies. Ultimately, inclusion is a matter of values expressed in policy, and not the other way around. An effective student-centered environment must be rooted in value of the student for more than their potential economic contribution, and the principle of equity demands access and opportunities for success be available to all.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • Educators and institutions need to establish the basis for their valuing students, operate consistently with that basis of valuation, and hire and retain educators deeply aligned with not only the valuation, but also the basis of the valuation.
  • Educators and institutions need to identify and counter obstacles to access and success with effective mission-aligned policies and processes that support those policies.

The Covid Effect

Covid changed the way education at all levels is conducted and perceived. Pre-Covid, online education was offered at least to some degree by most schools. Post-Covid, online education is an integral aspect of even most onsite programs. As online offers many advantages, more parents and students are choosing online education over the in-classroom experience. “According to the United States Department of Education, more than 14 million students were chronically absent from the classroom in the 2021 and 2022 school year…Disengagement, lack of support, health challenges and lack of transportation are other key factors the Department of Education says is leading to students not returning to the classroom.”[19] Mississippi has not been exempt from this nationwide trend. “When it comes to some Mississippi school districts, school leaders say parents are depending on the hybrid model of learning. As a result, some students do not attend school at all or just on certain days of the week.”[20]

This dramatic shift in parent and student expectations at the K-12 level is and will increasingly be shared at the postsecondary level. Full online accessibility is now a basic expectation, further taxing institutions and demanding up to date technology with academic and student success services available through online avenues. But the impact of demand for online access extends beyond the educational process, it also is reshaping marketing and recruiting of students. In the past, students might choose a local community college because of lower cost and geographic accessibility. Online access means that students have more choices – they are no longer limited by geography. While overall this is good for students in the sense that schools must provide more and better services to earn student enrollments, this new environment demands an institutional agility that surpasses the ability of institutions that have traditionally been slow to adapt.

For students who lack the technology tools and tech literacy to engage this new reality, this broadened access may not offer real access after all – not without educators adapting to the realization that just as education now extends beyond the classroom, so do students’ needs related to accessing that education. One study quantified loss of learning due to lack of basic internet, support services, and tech literacy challenges during Covid,[21] and many of these challenges remain unresolved. While there are many negative consequences, one felt by higher ed institutions is the challenge of serving perhaps the least college-ready incoming classes in decades. The Center on Reinventing Public Education laments that, “The traditional pathways to college and careers were already not working for too many students. The pandemic made everything worse.”[22] One alarming metric is “undergraduate enrollment at public universities and community colleges dropped 7% from 2019 to 2023, with enrollment in two-year colleges declining the most dramatically.[23] Community colleges especially are feeling the crunch, as their most significant enrollment group is graduating seniors entering college.[24] Couple these declining enrollment numbers with an associate’s degree graduation rate of 17.8% in Mississippi,[25] and the outlook for higher education in Mississippi – especially in the first two years – looks especially challenging. Educators and institutions will need to be creative to address these challenges and to be competitive with other well-equipped institutions.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • Partner with tech providers to include tech services and literacy tools in enrollment packages.
  • Develop tech-focused advising, counseling, and tutoring to help foster tech literacy to improve college readiness.
  • Formatting education modules and services for cellphone use to minimize the technology demands and increase access.

The Enrollment Cliff

While birthrates had been fairly steady since the mid 1970’s, the recession of 2008 brought a sharp decline in birthrates, falling to a thirty-two year low in 2018, and continuing to decline despite economic recovery.[26] Missy Kline, managing editor of Higher Ed HR Magazine predicted in 2019 that “Many higher ed institutions will face declining or stagnant student enrollment beginning in about six years, a reality which will require a thoughtful, strategic approach to ensure the viability and sustainability of those institutions.”[27]

Mississippi is among the states expecting to see the greatest enrollment decreases of more than 15%.[28] It is expected that “declining student enrollments will likely translate into fewer tuition dollars collected and leaner budgets. Regional colleges will be under pressure to cut liberal arts courses and expand professional programs…”[29] One observer notes that the demographic trends are combining with the end of Covid funding and a trend away from traditional campus based education to threaten the existence especially of smaller schools: “Public flagships and land grant universities in “net receiver” states will continue to be highly attractive and have opportunities to grow and increase selectivity, if these are goals. Other public colleges and universities will be challenged, especially those in rural states and communities.”[30] So far these grim projections for Mississippi regional public colleges have proven to be understatements. From 2010 to 2021, Mississippi saw enrollment increases of 13% at its two public flagships, with decreases of more than 20% at its public regionals.[31] In this new educational economy, the rich get richer and the poor…shut down.

With increased demographic challenges, disappearing funding, and heightened competition, educators and institutions must heighten their awareness of competitive factors and develop marketplace skills not previously required for conducting education. A recent Niche survey of 2024 high school graduates highlights some areas in which students have expressed needs, giving higher ed institutions the opportunity to provide solutions: Less than a quarter of students overall and only 14% of first generation students and 12% of low income students had confidence they could afford college. Further, a remarkable 96% of students expressed that they had difficulty in the search and application process.[32] Confidence in dealing with the cost is very low, while trouble navigating the process is very high. These are not good statistics for an industry facing an enrollment cliff.

Practical Implications and Recommendations

  • Educators and institutions must prioritize ways to remove obstacles to successful enrollments.
  • Survey applied but not enrolled students and respond to the data.
  • Provide heightened personal guidance through the recruiting, application, and enrollment processes.
  • Recognize that the enrollment journey doesn’t end until the student is in the classroom (digital or otherwise).
  • Identify partners and stakeholders who can contribute to costs to decrease financial burden on students while building needed programs.
    • Example: Develop academic programs in cooperation with corporations to meet their workforce needs [the corporate partner underwrites a faculty position, and provides scholarship dollars and internship opportunities, the institution prepares work-ready graduates for that specific corporation and context].
  • Maximize and leverage higher revenue/profit programs to help subsidize other important though less profitable programs.
  • Develop marketing skills among all stakeholders (every faculty, for example, is an advertiser for the institution).
  • Commit to learner success. The mission is accomplished (helping learners grow and succeed), while providing the helpful byproduct of maximizing current enrollments and increasing future enrollments (through alumni marketing [passive and active]).


These are challenging times for education in any context. To meet those challenges, educators and institutions must keep the main thing the main thing – learners’ learning, growth, and success in their chosen endeavors. Learner-centric education is always the most worthwhile, as it takes the posture of service and investment in the other person. This is a core aspect of our design and purpose as human beings. The realities of the many obstacles faced by educators and educational institutions – like those in Mississippi that are discussed here – can be daunting and provide an ongoing sense of utter failure. But like the persistent educators and leaders in Mississippi who continue to invest in learners in the face of many challenges, we can all continue to refine our skills and methods for serving learners. In the transformative approach which I espouse (that teaching and learning is successful when learners grow), the motivation to help others grow and our need for help in that growth process is far greater than the obstacles that stand in our way. Because of that reality, one point of priority becomes more important than any of the practical recommendations discussed above – and that is to examine for whom we educate and why we educate. If we answer those questions well, then the how of education becomes much less daunting, and the what of education becomes an expectation and not a blind hope.

[1] Mississippi Senate Bill 2726.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Learn More, Earn More: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment,” May 2020, viewed at

[3] Mississippi State University, “Mississippi needs ‘critical investments in higher education” viewed at

[4] Dr. Rod Paige, quoted by Ashley Norwood, “On this day everyone agrees: Mississippi values higher education” in Mississippi Today, February 21, 2017, viewed at

[5] Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, “Mission” About, viewed at

[6] MGCCC Strategic Plan, “Excelerate 2030: Inspiring Excellence and Accelerating Achievement,” 5, viewed at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid., 10.

[10] Ibid., 11.

[11] Shad White (MS State Auditor), “Plugging the Brain Drain: Investing in College Majors that Actually Work”, Office of the State Auditor, Mississippi, September 2023, viewed at

[12] Ibid., Fig. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, “Texas House Bill 8 becomes law… “, viewed at

[15] Shad White, “Jimmy Buffet Didn’t Need a Music Degree” in Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2023, viewed at

[16] Aallyah Wright, “Mississippi’s teacher pool is the second least diverse in the nation” in Mississippi Today, December 8, 2020, viewed at

[17] Shad White (MS State Auditor), “The Cost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” Programs at Mississippi Public Universities,” Office of the State Auditor, Mississippi, June 2023, viewed at

[18] Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, “Board Policies and Bylaws Diversity Statement” viewed at

[19] Christopher Fields, “Schools around the nation experiencing all-time low attendance rates post Covid-19 pandemic” in, April 2, 2024, viewed at

[20] Ibid.

[21] Mississippi Center for Justice, “Covid-19 and Education Impact Report,” 4, viewed at

[22] CRPE, “The State of the American Student – We are failing older students: bold ideas to change course” Fall 2023, 8, viewed at

[23] Ibid.

[24] Roughly 47% of graduating seniors entering college in Mississippi enrolled in community colleges versus 19% in four-year universities. (Lifetracks Mississippi, “College Progress Before 2019 for 2017 Graduates” viewed at

[25] Mississippi Department of Education, “Outcomes for High School Graduates” 2022, viewed at

[26] Missy Kline, “The Looming Higher Ed Enrollment Cliff” Higher Ed HR Magazine, Fall 2019, viewed at

[27] Ibid.

[28] Jill Barshay, “College students expected to fall by more than15% after 2025” in The Hechinger Report, September 2018, viewed at

[29] Ibid.

[30] David Roswosky, “The Cliffs of Higher Ed: Who’s Going Over, and Why?” Forbes Magazine, February 3, 2024, viewed at

[31] Lee Gardner, “Flagships Prosper While Regionals Suffer…”in The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13, 2023, viewed at

[32] Will Patch, “Niche Class of 2024 Fall Survey” Niche, Fall 2023, viewed at