Driving advancement: Higher education key factor in region's progress

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

If Northeast Mississippi reaches its full potential in 2020, it will be with the guidance of one of the region’s top resources – its institutions of higher education.
Two of Mississippi’s four public research universities call Northeast Mississippi home. So do four community colleges, a third public university and two private colleges.
They will all prove valuable as the region adjusts to an economy that places higher demands on highly skilled technical expertise.
“When I talk to groups around the state, especially in Northeast Mississippi, I talk about the importance of education, specifically higher education and the role it has to play to move our state forward,” Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum said.
Although the institutions play different roles individually, they are entering an unprecedented era of collaboration. That era began when the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University announced last year that they would form a task force dedicated to the advancement of Northeast Mississippi.
That task force has also sought input from leaders of the region’s other community colleges and colleges.
“We can have an impact on what happens,” said Bettye Rogers Coward, president of Blue Mountain College. “We don’t have to sit back and watch things decline.”
The biggest challenge facing Mississippi’s higher education community is raising the state’s educational attainment – the number of residents with diplomas and degrees.
The state ranks last in the nation with 78.9 percent of adults age 25 and above having high school diplomas. It’s 48th with 19.1 percent of its adults earning bachelor degrees or higher.
Northeast Mississippi’s 16 counties are even farther behind in terms of college degrees. Thirteen of them trail the state average, and all but the two university counties – Lafayette and Oktibbeha – trail the nation.
It is a troubling statistic that gives industries pause when they consider relocating to Northeast Mississippi. It stifles individual job opportunities and salary potential, and in doing so, dampens the local economy.
Improving that statistic was the top goal cited by the two research universities in forming their task force. That effort includes a collaboration of both community colleges and four-year institutions.
The answer relies upon community colleges to move high school dropouts through GED programs. It involves two-year colleges taking those with high school diplomas and training them in skills demanded in industrial settings or advancing them toward university studies.
And it includes four-year institutions helping high school and community college graduates earn bachelor’s degrees and higher.
“I do think our state would benefit from having more people with college degrees with broad backgrounds that lead to bachelor’s and advanced degrees,” said Dan Jones, chancellor of the University of Mississippi. “There is a strong correlation between people with bachelor’s degrees and higher and what the economy does.”
“We also have a lot of room for people moving from high school dropouts to a completed technical education that would have them in the work force with technical skills required for manufacturing jobs like with Toyota and in the information technology industry.”
One barrier is cost. MSU and Ole Miss have each recently added scholarship programs for low-income students, and many Northeast Mississippi counties have created tuition guarantee programs that allow their high school graduates to attend local community colleges tuition free if they meet certain criteria.
The work on educational attainment also will include discussions among four-year institutions, community colleges and school districts about creating a more seamless transition for students from one level to the next.
At a recent meeting of the MSU-UM Task Force, educators discussed such possible solutions as helping high school students fill out federal financial aid applications and providing checklists that chart their path to higher education.
“You will see far more cooperation and dialogue between elementary and secondary folks with higher education,” Coward said.
One trend over the next decade may be an increase in dual enrollment offerings, in which high school students could begin taking community college or college classes during their junior and senior years.
The role of higher education in the region’s development runs deeper than merely educating more students. The community colleges have a special role in training employees for the work force, particularly as manufacturing jobs become more high-tech and skills-based.
Itawamba Community College, for example, houses a training program for new Toyota employees at its Belden campus.
“What community colleges are doing, we are a very good quality return of investment in the economy,” said David Cole, ICC president. “In one or two years, a person can go from unemployed to being a skilled person and being a taxpayer.”
When new industries arrive, it often falls upon the community colleges to prepare workers for their specific demands.
“At community colleges,” Cole said, “we realize we have to be rapid-response change agents to provide knowledge and skills a person must have to compete in a modern economy.”
The universities also have a role for research and economic development. Mississippi State’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, for instance, provides a resource for aerospace companies located in the Golden Triangle, Keenum said. Several of those companies used Raspet as an incubator.
“The programs we’re involved in from a research standpoint are having a huge impact economically in our state, and especially in this region,” Keenum said.
That research is also helping attract the kind of jobs needed to keep graduates in state, Keenum added.
MSU’s Franklin Furniture Institute provides a boon to local manufacturers by having representatives help companies shift to modern manufacturing processes.
The University of Mississippi’s new Center for Manufacturing Excellence is designed to prepare the engineers that the region will require. Its graduates will have a background in engineering with a focus on manufacturing and a strong emphasis on business and accountancy, Jones said.
The institutions also are working together to help Mississippi expand its quality early childhood education offerings and to better prepare teachers for the state’s K-12 classrooms.
“Our leadership in our school of education,” Jones said, “is working hard to evaluate what we do in the way of teacher preparation to be sure we are doing all we can at the education level to give our state the best chance of having a strong K-12 system.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.