By NEMS Daily Journal
The Daily Journal’s series this week, “The Drive to 2020,” makes it clear that community colleges are a key component of Northeast Mississippi’s future economic success. The same undoubtedly holds true in other parts of the state.
They are critical as the region seeks to raise its overall educational attainment levels in preparation for the higher skills jobs that will be available for those communities with an educated work force. They are essential as continuous learning centers where people return to upgrade their skills or be trained for specific new job requirements.
They’re also booming in student enrollment – a 54 percent increase in the past decade. That pace has accelerated at Itawamba and Northeast the past couple of years, thanks to a combination of factors, not the least of which is regional efforts to reduce high school dropouts and extend post-high school education opportunities to a greater share of the population.
Yet in the same decade that has seen a 54 percent enrollment increase, state funding has been reduced 26 percent. That doesn’t square with the high expectations the state has established for the role community colleges are to play.
Last week, the Mississippi Senate – at the behest of Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona – reinstated $15 million in cuts its leadership had made to community colleges’ budgets. The effect would be to keep the amount for the next fiscal year about where it is in the current year at $226 million.
It’s not as if community colleges are lax on efficiencies or local governments aren’t doing their part. The five counties in ICC’s district, for example, all are at the maximum millage for community college support.
But community colleges have been forced to reduce schedules, increase class sizes and use more part-time instructors. None of this is good for the quality of education offered to the students who are flooding these institutions.
Level funding is appropriate for the next fiscal year, even in tight times made tougher by the loss of federal stimulus funds that plugged budget holes the last couple of years.
If Mississippi is going to demand more of its educational institutions from universities down to pre-school, it needs to recognize the necessity of adequate funding. In these times for community colleges, that translates into simply stopping the bleeding, nothing more.
That’s not too much to ask when everyone acknowledges that the success of community colleges has a direct impact on the level of future revenue the state will be able to achieve. It’s an investment with a clear payoff in better trained workers and more jobs.