Officials at the University of Southern Mississippi once considered Gulf Park, the oceanside satellite campus in Long Beach, a “secret weapon” for increasing enrollment at the smallest of the state’s top-tier research universities.
But last fall, just 1,040 students were pursuing a degree at Gulf Park — a more than 50% drop from 2,297 students in 2011, according to data from USM.
The number of warm bodies in physical classroom seats at Gulf Park was even lower – just 862 students last fall, down from 1,438 in fall 2018.Mississippi Today has requested this statistic, called unique enrollment, going back to 2011, but USM did not provide it by press time.
The steep decline represents a missed opportunity to provide higher education to one of Mississippi’s fastest growing and economically vibrant regions, community members told the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees at a listening session on the Gulf Park campus last week.
“If you walk around, you really don’t see any students,” said Mahdi Razaz, a professor in Gulf Park’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering. “It’s a campus, but you really don’t see anyone. Why?”
Razaz’s answer: “We don’t have a sense of community here. We don’t see it as the University of Southern Miss.”
The general state of the 52-acre campus even drew condemnation from Tom Duff, a USM alumnus and the IHL board member leading the university’s ongoing presidential search. He told the audience at the listening session that when it comes to Gulf Park, USM “needs to do better.”
“I’m going to be blunt enough to tell you that one of the great travesties that we are concerned with at IHL is our lack of representation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said. “Frankly, we are embarrassed by it, and we want that corrected because this area is too important.”
A myriad of factors could be driving the enrollment decline, but it’s unclear how closely the university has evaluated the issue. USM hired a new enrollment chief in July named Randall Langston who has said he’s still getting to know the university.
At Gulf Park, “we are down probably on a lower ebb than what we’ve had in the past,” Langston said in an interview with Mississippi Today, but he did not identify any local factors that could be driving the enrollment decline.
One potential reason for the drop that some community members gave at the listening session include the aftereffects of a years-long, university-wide reorganization led by former USM President Rodney Bennett that resulted in fewer academic programs at Gulf Park.
Other speakers noted that local students, not knowing Gulf Park exists, are choosing to attend USM online or go out of state to colleges along I-10 like the University of New Orleans or the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Gulf Park has traditionally served place-based students on the coast who can’t relocate to Hattiesburg for college.
Kalyn Lamey, a lecturer at Gulf Park, told trustees that she attended college in Alabama because she didn’t know USM had a coastal campus when she graduated from Saint Patrick Catholic High School in Biloxi.
“I think that it’s very important to have a president who understands the importance of marketing our campus as existing down here,” she said. “It’s not that (students are) choosing between Hattiesburg and Gulf Park, it’s that they simply cannot leave.”
Langston said that USM has hired a marketing firm called VisionPoint to help Gulf Park reach the community.
“We want to be front facing, we want to be transparent for students,” he said. “The firm helps us understand how do we package that whole ideology in a way that communicates with students, whether that be through email or print communications.”
The declining enrollment has also heightened a longstanding feeling among faculty, staff and students on the coast that when it comes to USM’s administration, Gulf Park plays second fiddle to Hattiesburg.
“There is still this feeling that if we have a program here on the Gulf Park campus that also exists in Hattiesburg, that somehow we are going to be robbing Hattiesburg of students,” Allan Eickelmann, a teaching professor, said at the listening session. “That is simply not true.”
Despite the community’s desire for a fully fledged university on the coast, officials at USM and IHL have not always supported Gulf Park’s expansion, fearing it would strain already cash-strapped budgets. The Mississippi Community College Board has also historically opposed USM’s expansion on the coast because Gulf Park would create more competition for students.
Nearly two decades later, MCCB’s fear has not been realized. In fact, enrollment at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston, a 45-minute drive from Long Beach, has far outpaced Gulf Park. MGCCC enrolled 9,057 students pursuing a degree in fall 2019, according to data from MCCB.
By one earlier estimate, USM has missed out on enrolling more than a thousand students on the coast. In 1997, a study by the College Board of New York projected that Gulf Park would reach 4,000 enrolled students in 2010.
Langston sought to put the enrollment decline at Gulf Park in a national perspective. He said that at universities across the country, enrollment has declined since the Great Recession and during the pandemic.
“The birth rates as you know have been down every year across the board since the Great Recession,” he said. “That impacts Gulf Park as much as any university.”
Jacob Breland, the vice president for academic affairs at Gulf Park, provided one local factor that could be contributing to the enrollment decline — an increase in online students.
“They just changed classes, from a physical class at Gulf Park to a virtual one,” he said.
But Langston and Breland could not say where exactly students on the coast are going to college, if not Gulf Park. Langston said the National Student Clearinghouse could provide an answer but that he typically doesn’t pull that data for Gulf Park, only for Hattiesburg.
At the listening session, some comments focused on how Gulf Park is under utilized in terms of the potential to partner with businesses in the region – multiple people said it has a “huge” untapped potential.
“This place has been ignored, and we’re not happy about it,” Duff said at the listening session. “It isn’t political to us, it’s right or wrong.”
Duff noted that the Coast is home to NASA, the country’s largest oil refinery, multiple military bases and a booming hospitality industry – all industries that USM should be seeking to provide with college graduates.
“You have all of these things going on, and what’s been done?” he said. “Not a whole lot.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.