JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Leaders of Mississippi's eight public universities are ringing alarm bells about state funding, saying they could lose their ability to compete if funding cuts from recent years aren't restored.

In presentations Monday to legislators, Higher Education Commissioner Glenn Boyce and university presidents warned that Mississippi could fall further behind the nation economically if its universities can't keep pace.

"We live in a really competitive world and our competitor universities understand that investing in their higher education system is the surest way to have a competitive advantage," Boyce told the House Appropriations Committee.

Leaders of the state's 15 community colleges are making a similar case, although in less alarmist terms, noting they eliminated 270 positions, including layoffs, and raised tuition by an average of 13 percent last spring. Copiah-Lincoln Community College President Ronnie Nettles told the same committee that cuts "threaten access to many Mississippians and threaten the quality of the programs we offer."

Current budget recommendations call for giving universities 15 percent less in general funds in the budget beginning July 1 than they spent in 2016, while community colleges would get 12 percent less. Instead, universities are asking for $103 million than this year, while community colleges are asking for another $78 million. Those would be, respectively, 16 percent and 34 percent increases from the current year, even though lawmakers currently propose cuts.

"We understand it's a large ask," Boyce told the House Appropriations Committee.

It's typical for Mississippi universities and community colleges to tell lawmakers that they need more money to increase faculty salaries and take care of campus buildings. Universities thought they had gotten money for faculty salary increases in the 2016 budget, but then budget shortfalls began requiring cuts, and universities never got the amount of money they were promised.

"Those cuts put the burden of those raises back on us in a significant way," Boyce said.

University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett told lawmakers that even if Mississippi universities get more state money, they are going to have to keep raising tuition to keep up. Tuition and fees for in-state university students rose 6.6 percent on average last year, although many students don't pay the sticker price thanks to federal, state and college aid.

Bennett said that without more money, faculty will decamp for better pay, high-achieving Mississippi students will seek better educations and university buildings will crumble. Ultimately, Bennett warned universities would fall in national rankings and academic programs could lose their national accreditations.

"I hear y'all ringing an alarm bell and I want you to know I hear that," said House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, a Meridian Republican. He and House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Gautier Republican, both said they hope revenue, which has flagged because of a slow economy and GOP-backed tax cuts, will continue improvements it has shown this year.

"I know times have been tough," Read told community college presidents. "When the money is there, we've always been there to help you."

Other Republicans, though, asked whether efficiencies have gone far enough, especially at the university level.

"Do we need eight institutions of higher learning in Mississippi?" asked Rep. Charles Busby, a Pascagoula Republican. Previous proposals to merge universities have been intensely controversial and ultimately rejected by lawmakers.

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