For much of its 98-year existence, Delta State University enjoyed prosperous growth, educating more and more students in pursuit of becoming the “educational and cultural center” of the Mississippi Delta.
But in the last eight years, enrollment has plummeted at the regional college in Bolivar County faster than at any other public university in Mississippi. Headcount has dropped 29% percent since 2014, with just 2,556 students enrolled this year, raising questions about Delta State’s ability to meet its mission and provide higher education to a region that’s rapidly losing population.
Administrators have tried – and so far, largely failed – to reverse the decline. Enrollment dropped all but three years under the university’s former president, William LaForge. Over the summer, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees suddenly removed him, citing the lack of improvement in the university’s financial and enrollment metrics. The board is now on the hunt for Delta State’s next leader with the goal of filling the position in spring 2023.
Whoever takes the helm will face significant challenges. Years of plummeting enrollment, along with deep cuts to state funding, have strained Delta State’s budget. This has forced the administration to cut programs, layoff faculty and staff, and delay much-needed maintenance and repairs. The pandemic hasn’t helped.
And it’s unclear if Delta State’s two biggest budgetary strategies — raising tuition and cutting institutional scholarships — are even working or simply making the university unaffordable for the very community it’s supposed to serve.
The administration knows that’s a possibility. In 2019, the former provost warned that increasing tuition “still doesn’t help cover the increasing cost of expenses due to a downward enrollment trend,” according to meeting minutes.
“Delta State may soon reach the saturation point of how much tuition Delta area students can afford to pay,” he told the president’s cabinet.
In 2014, tuition at Delta State cost $6,012 a year before room and board. Now, it’s up to $8,435, a quarter of the median household income in Bolivar County.
Delta State is also looking to hire a director of admissions, a search it closed in August 2022 because it was unsatisfied with the applicants.
Eddie Lovin, the vice president of student affairs, is overseeing enrollments in the meantime. In an email, he did not say if the administration thinks Delta State has reached the forewarned “saturation point” yet but wrote that “affordability is always a concern for all students, not just Delta students.”
Even though headcount declined again this fall, Lovin told Mississippi Today in an interview that he is “cautiously optimistic” enrollment will improve by 2024, citing an increase in the numbers of freshmen, transfer students and re-admitted students compared to last year.
The community is less sure. Last month, IHL trustees hosted a listening session on campus to gather input on the presidential search. The board also asked attendees to fill out an online survey. The majority of the 97 anonymous respondents identified enrollment as the biggest challenge facing Delta State. In written feedback, many said they wanted the next president to have a plan to bring more students to campus – even if that means recruiting beyond the Delta.
“How can we recapture the DSU of old and drive students from all over the state not just the Delta to DSU?” one respondent submitted.
Delta State has long had a complicated relationship with the region it serves. The historically white college was the last public university in the state to admit Black students in 1967.
While Delta State now enrolls a far higher percentage of Black students than the University of Mississippi or Mississippi State University, its demographics don’t line up with the Delta’s. In 2020, 33% of students at Delta State were Black and 55% were white, according to federal data – a near inversion of the demographics of Bolivar County, which is 65% Black and 33% white.
In 2013, the former president, LaForge, said he would focus on recruiting — he vowed that on his first day on the job, he would personally visit all the high schools in Cleveland. He also promised to fix the budget.
“For too long, Delta State’s expenses have continued to rise while enrollment has decreased,” he said at his first convocation in 2014. “Both those trains have to stop, and we are committed to halting both and turning them in the right direction.”
LaForge had to repeatedly reduce the budget, often by $1 million or more. He closed the university’s golf course at the recommendation of his cabinet and shuttered a slew of programs from athletic training to journalism.
In 2000, Delta State received roughly $21 million in state appropriations. If state funding had kept pace with inflation, the university would have received about $36 million from the Legislature this fiscal year. Instead, it got $20 million.
These state budget cuts have hamstrung the administration’s ability to fund new programs or strategies to increase enrollment. But there were tactics the university could have pursued without more funding.
At a meeting in July 2015, the former dean of enrollment management, Debbie Heslep, told cabinet members that the university needed an enrollment plan crafted with input from the whole campus.
The plan should be led by a faculty member, not admissions, Heslep said, and provide a “clear direction and a unified decision on where to take our enrollment management efforts” like targeting National Merit semi-finalists, emphasizing particular majors, or increasing scholarships.
It's unclear from the meeting minutes if that ever happened. Interim Director of Communications Holly Ray told Mississippi Today via email that “Admissions has undergone restructuring quite a few times since then, so there isn’t any one person who was there during that time to speak to it.”
By 2018, meeting minutes show the administration discussing how dire the financial situation had become. That July, Vice President for Finance and Administration James Rutledge told cabinet members there were three ways the university could improve its cash on hand: delaying infrastructure repairs, increasing tuition and cutting scholarships.
Each strategy, Rutledge warned, came with a “caveat … that shows it will be damaging to the university,” according to minutes.
“IHL Commissioner Al Rankins has seen the Financial Sustainability report, and he knows our three strategies can’t be accomplished without terrible consequences,” Rutledge told the cabinet.
The reason Delta State was considering pursuing that latter strategy — reducing scholarships — was somewhat ironic. The university had routinely overspent its scholarship budget by $1 million, largely because of increased tuition.
For students, the reduction in scholarships can mean they’re taking on more debt to go to college.
At Delta State, 60% of students take out federal loans to attend, according to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard. After graduation, the median debt is a little over $21,000 – a significant amount compared to median earnings of about $37,000.
It remains to be seen if these strategies will meaningfully improve the school’s budget. The influx of federal dollars during the pandemic has helped Delta State stay afloat the last two years. And while the university's cash on hand increased to 40 days in 2020 – the highest in 10 years – that’s still nowhere near IHL’s goal of 90 days.
But Delta State has a plan to improve enrollment now. At LaForge’s direction, Lovin, the vice president of student affairs, prepared one for IHL last year. The plan emphasizes recruiting in nearby high schools so that Delta State can once again “own its own backyard” but also says the university must “expand its reach” to meet its needs.
The plan does not discuss Delta State’s affordability. Lovin said he thinks the primary reason enrollment has declined is subpar recruiting efforts, not cost.
When he took over admissions, Lovin said he learned “we hadn't been to Cleveland High School in several years,” he said. “It's a block down the street.”
Correction 12/14/22: A quote in this story has been updated to reflect DSU has not been to Cleveland high in several years, not seven years.