Suresh Chawla says he got a personal insight recently as to why his alma mater, Millsaps College, is struggling with enrollment.
It’s being outhustled by other college recruiters, the Greenwood-based hotel executive claims.
Chawla’s son, Sunjay, became a hot commodity with colleges after winning the national Wendy’s High School Heisman last November. The Pillow Academy senior received congratulatory phone calls from the deputy athletics director at the University of Mississippi and the admissions directors at Harvard University and Emory University.
“I never heard a dadgum thing from Millsaps,” Suresh Chawla said.
Eventually, when Sunjay listed in priority order the nine colleges to which he applied, Millsaps, even with its offer of $144,000 in scholarships, came in last.
Mississippi’s premier liberal arts college has been increasingly on the losing side of those decisions, as it has watched its enrollment decline from 1,200 in the 1990s to 850 today. Last month, it announced that it would make cuts in programs and faculty to adjust to the lower student numbers.
The news has caused some consternation among faculty and alumni, and even worries about whether the Methodist-affiliated school could follow the path of other small private colleges that have closed in recent years in the U.S.
Mike Sturdivant III is confident Millsaps will survive. The Itta Bena farmer got a business degree from the school in 1972 and has sat on its board of trustees for the past decade.
He said the cuts were a regrettable but necessary adjustment to get the school’s expenses in line with its enrollment.
Millsaps’ biggest challenge, most observers agree, is that the type of students for which it used to have a recruiting edge are now being lured away by the honors colleges that have been established over the past 20 years at much less expensive public universities, including Ole Miss, Mississippi State and even LSU.
Even though Millsaps might cut its sticker price — now estimated at more than $58,000 a year for all costs — to the low teens for its top students, “kids that qualify for honors college (at a public institution) a lot of time get a free ride,” Sturdivant said.
His own son chose the honors college at Ole Miss.
“I can tell you it’s appealing,” Sturdivant said. “It’s a whole lot cheaper, they’re putting out a quality product, and there’s the lure of going to an SEC school.”
Chawla, who sits on the advisory board to Millsaps’ graduate business school, contends that the college has had plenty of time to adjust to losing its niche as “the Harvard of the South.”
None of the presidents who have succeeded George Harmon, who retired in 2000 after 22 years at the school’s helm, have been up to the task of repositioning Millsaps and marketing its attributes, according to Chawla.
Those attributes are still considerable.
Millsaps has produced two Rhodes Scholars since 2015 and seven overall. Among the state institutions, only Ole Miss, with 26, has had more students receive the elite scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. Mississippi State has had just two, and no other state college has any.
All of the classes at Millsaps are taught by faculty members, not graduate students. Class sizes average about a dozen students per professor. The college has an excellent track record of getting its students into professional or graduate schools.
“I can tell you right now that if a Mississippi kid wants to be a doctor, they are all but guaranteed of getting into (the University of Mississippi Medical School) by going pre-med at Millsaps. The success rate is unreal,” said Chawla.
“But Millsaps is not marketing that.”