By NEMS Daily Journal
When talk turns to school dropouts, most of the public discussion usually is focused on high schools. Northeast Mississippi and the state as a whole have made concerted efforts in recent years to reduce the unacceptably high percentage of students who never get their high school diploma.
But the education retention issue doesn’t stop there. It’s imperative that this region and state also get at the problem in higher education, including community colleges.
That’s why Itawamba Community College’s performance in increasing its graduation numbers this academic year is so important. ICC led all community colleges statewide with a 47.56 percent increase in the number of graduates. That translates to 1,300 students getting a degree, 419 more than last year, without summer graduates counted yet.
ICC also saw record enrollment this year, but keeping students in school and focused on a degree didn’t happen by chance. It required intentional, focused strategies and as Mike Eaton, chairman of the school’s Institutional Effectiveness Task Force, put it, “a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”
Educational attainment levels in Northeast Mississippi are below national and even state numbers. Much of the gap between this region’s per capita income and the nation’s is directly attributable to the fact that too many of our people have too little education.
If Northeast Mississippi is to continue to be able to attract the kinds of jobs our people need and want – the kind that can offer hope of a stable economic future – it simply has to ensure that more of its people advance higher up the educational ladder.
The community college tuition guarantee programs that most counties in the region now offer to high school graduates is an innovative incentive toward that goal. But it also presents a new challenge: Helping students who previously would not have considered going to college to stick with it once they get there.
All community college students aren’t necessarily there to graduate. Some are simply taking one or a few courses to advance their careers. But some of those can be convinced while there that a degree would further enhance their career prospects.
High school graduation, as elusive as that is for too many students, is only the absolute minimum goal for educational attainment. Most attractive jobs of the future will require at least an associate’s degree – the kind conferred by community colleges.
Efforts such as ICC’s to ensure that more people get that message and do what’s necessary to make it happen are essential in ensuring that both individual potential and regional economic development prospects are fully realized.