3Qs: Eric Clark, executive director, Mississippi Board of Community Colleges

By NEMS Daily Journal

Presidents of community colleges recently met with legislative leaders to reiterate the importance of mid-level funding for the 15 two-year schools. Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board, answered questions from the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison about community college funding.
Q. What is mid-level funding?
A. In 2007, the Legislature recognized the historical underfunding for our community colleges. In order to fix that problem, legislators unanimously passed and Gov. Haley Barbour signed the Mid-Level Funding Act which said that community colleges shall be funded per student, halfway between the K-12 schools and four regional universities. Based on our most recent figures, K-12 received $4,638 per student and the regional universities received $6,648 per student. This means our community colleges should receive $5,643 per student. Instead we were funded at $3,277 per student.

Q. Why is it important for the community colleges to obtain mid-level funding?
A. First off, mid-level funding is important because it is the law. Secondly, during the past 10 years, state appropriations have not kept up with our record enrollment increases. Since 2000, community college enrollment has increased by approximately 50 percent while funding per student has decreased by 24 percent. In order to make up for this difference, our community colleges have increased tuition, class sizes, and class loads; hired additional part-time faculty; and delayed repair and renovations to campus facilities.
More fundamentally, community colleges provide the best and fastest return on the state dollars invested in education. In one to two years, community colleges teach our citizens job skills that dramatically increase their earning power. This means those citizens can provide a better life for their family and pay more taxes to our state and local governments.

Q. What is your goal in moving closer to mid-level during the 2012 session? How far from obtaining mid-level funding are the community colleges now?
A. This year, we are asking for approximately $77 million for mid-level funding, which is half of what is needed to achieve full funding. Last fiscal year, state general fund tax collections exceed the prior year by almost $130 million. So far this year, we are ahead of revenue projections by $25.5 million. So more tax money is coming in.
I do not expect that we will receive $77 million. Realistically, we are asking the Legislature to make community colleges a high priority and make significant progress in curing the underfunding of community colleges compared to K-12 and universities. No one denies that community colleges are seriously underfunded. It is time to begin to fix that problem.