Dr. Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University, speaks at Stennis Institute luncheon in Jackson.

Mississippi high schools are graduating fewer and fewer students, which tightens the pool for potential university students, Mississippi State University’s president Mark Keenum said Thursday.

“Why? Fewer people are graduating high school because our state’s population isn’t expanding,” said Keenum, in his eighth year leading MSU.

Speaking at the Stennis Institute’s Capital Press Luncheon in Jackson, Keenum blamed the student loss on an “out-migration” of Mississippi residents seeking better jobs elsewhere.

He said a recent survey showed that only about half of MSU’s students stay in state after graduation.

“That’s not bad,” he admitted, indicating he’s proud that out-of-state opportunities are open to his students.

But he said he “hopes to build on opportunities to bring them back home” one day.

Keenum also spoke about the growing challenges he and other state university leaders face in meeting student expectations while wrestling with diminished state resources.

He cited multiple studies showing higher wage jobs for college graduates compared to people with and without a high school diploma.

“There’s a direct correlation between higher income and higher educational attainment,” he noted. “Imagine what Mississippi could look like today if 35 percent of our people had college degrees.”

Less than 20 percent of state residents have college degrees. The state’s annual per capita income is slightly more than $21,000, he said.

Keenum compared Mississippi income statistics to Connecticut’s average income of $39,000 with 36 percent residents with college degrees and Massachusetts’ average income of $36,500 with 38 percent residents with college degrees.

“If we had a better educated citizenry,” the MSU chief added, “it would translate into more jobs and more opportunities.”

While it costs MSU $16,400 per year to educate a full-time student, he said a full year’s tuition for an in-state student is $7,500.

Keenum said MSU bolsters that income with higher rates charged out-of-state students. Other significant resources include gifts from alumni and friends, in addition to state appropriations.

He also said he relishes the opportunity to show state political leaders how MSU spends state appropriations and “what we’re doing at Mississippi State.” The Mississippi Legislature has ordered a study of spending at all state universities.