Buoyed by a series of tweets from State Auditor Shad White belittling certain liberal arts degrees as “garbage,” “useless” and “indoctrination factories,” a recent report from his office calls for Mississippi to change how it funds higher education by stripping public money from programs that don’t support the state’s economy in favor of those that do.
But in an interview Friday afternoon, two days after the report was released, White said he could not think of any lawmakers who had reached out to him about setting up a committee — the report’s central recommendation — to study revamping higher education funding in Mississippi.
“I’m wracking my brain,” he said. “Not a ton (have reached out) because it’s just been out for two or three days.”
White said he expects some inquiries but his guess is that hard copies of the report, which were prepped for a number of powerful elected officials — the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house and members of key legislative committees — haven’t arrived in the mail yet.
The state auditor’s office does not have policy-making power, so for now, White is reliant on champion lawmakers to turn his recommendations into reality.
“I’m trying to think if a legislator has texted or called me,” White said. “I don’t recall any right offhand that specifically mentioned the report.”
The eight-page report is part of a yearlong effort by the auditor’s office to propose solutions to Mississippi’s intractable “brain drain,” the phenomenon in which college-educated people leave the state for better-paying opportunities elsewhere, in effect subsidizing the economies of nearby states.
If Mississippi could retain just a few more graduates seeking highly paid jobs like engineering, the report said it would be a multimillion-dollar boon to the economy.
“State appropriations should focus on the degree programs our state’s economy values most,” the report states. “Otherwise, taxpayers will face the repercussions of an inadequate workforce and a declining population.”
The brain drain is an issue that has concerned lawmakers across the political spectrum and, in recent years, led to bipartisan proposals in Mississippi to incentivize graduates to go into crucial fields, like teaching and nursing, that are experiencing dire shortages.
State agencies already have some policies that take this into account. The Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees public universities in Mississippi, evaluates programs based on the state’s workforce needs. The state’s community colleges are trying to expand workforce development programs.
What White is proposing goes further. Though he is not advocating for “abolishing” certain degrees, White said it’s not enough to simply let the market guide Mississippi college students to degrees that lead to higher-paying jobs — which, by and large, is what’s already happening.
Rather, state government intervention is necessary to ensure taxpayers are seeing a return on investment in higher education, White said.
“What I’m suggesting is that we take a hard look at how we’re spending money, and we add more money to those programs of study,” he said, “by … taking those dollars away from programs of study that aren’t economically beneficial to taxpayers.”
Toren Ballard, an education policy analyst at Mississippi First, said it’s important to understand that taxpayers are not really footing the bill for the state’s universities. This year, state appropriations comprised just 21.5% of IHL’s operating budget.
As state funding for higher education has plummeted since 2000, the cost of tuition has ballooned, putting the onus on Mississippians to pay for college, leading them to choose career paths that help them afford it, Ballard said. That’s one reason he thinks the report’s recommendation is largely unnecessary, though he hopes it could lead to more funding for higher education.
“I think we’re not giving enough credit to individual student decision making here,” Ballard said.
Al Rankins, the IHL commissioner, seemed to agree. In a statement, he said it would “appear more productive” to address Mississippi’s brain drain by creating more career opportunities.
“University students are adults who choose their majors based on their interests and career aspirations,” he said. “After graduating some choose to pursue opportunities in other states for a myriad of reasons outside of the control of our universities.”
White said that when he was choosing his undergraduate major — political science and economics from the University of Mississippi — that he wished he had access to data showing what he could expect to make when he graduates.
“If I had to think it over again, I would rethink majoring in political science,” he said.
So what degree programs does Mississippi’s economy value most, according to the auditor? The report begins with a graph that measures value as a trade-off between the median income a graduate can expect to make and the likelihood they will stay in Mississippi.
In the top-left corner of the graph are higher-paid graduates who are more likely to leave, like business and engineering degrees. The top-right corner shows higher-paid graduates who were very likely to stay, including health professions and teachers. “All other degree types” are largely in the middle.
Right now, the report says, the state funds all those degrees at the same amount, even though some degrees cost more to offer.
Ballard noted the report did not consider graduates who go directly to law school or medical school, potentially lowering the median income of majors like sociology that the auditor denigrated online.
“That’s why engineering degrees look particularly good here,” he said.
White said the goal of the report — and his social media posts — was not to be comprehensive but to “initiate a conversation around this question.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s taking back anything he wrote.
“I’m defending it,” he said. “I’m telling you that we have to address these ideas in a way that is plain and clear, and if you shroud it in technocratic jargon, nobody will care.”