Expanding tuition guarantee won't happen rapidly

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – After Monroe County became the first in Northeast Mississippi to announce its community college tuition guarantee program in 2008, the idea quickly spread across the region.
But duplication of Monroe’s latest plan likely won’t occur so rapidly.
Fourteen counties in Northeast Mississippi followed Monroe County’s lead to add programs that pay for four semesters of community college tuition for high school graduates.
Those programs are funded by a combination of foundations, development districts, municipalities and county supervisors.
Leaders of those groups said Tuesday that they’re still trying to lay the foundation for the community college guarantee and that it’s premature for them to expand.
“Right now we don’t have any plans to make any substantial changes to the program,” said Ronnie Bell, division director of governmental functions for Three Rivers Planning and Development District. “This semester is just the fourth semester we’ve been under this program.”
Three Rivers, along with county governments, currently funds community college guarantees in Itawabama, Union, Pontotoc, Chickasaw, Calhoun and Lafayette counties.
Lisa Stevens, economic and community development coordinator for the Northeast Mississippi Planning and Development District, had a similar answer. So did Lewis Whitfield and Mike Clayborne of the CREATE Foundation.
The Northeast Mississippi planning district works with supervisors to fund the guarantees in Benton, Tippah, Prentiss, Alcorn and Tishomingo counties.
The CREATE Foundation’s Marchbanks Endowment Fund helps support the program in Lee County. The Pierce Foundation, which is administered by CREATE, helps fund it in Alcorn County.
Clayborne said that the first likely change would be enhancing the community college program to include more than tuition. He said that expanding it for two more years of education is difficult because universities are more expensive, and there is no model to study.
Before releasing the community college guarantee, Northeast Mississippi leaders studied a similar program that Meridian Community College had used for about 10 years.
“I think it is a great thing and is something we’d like to see available throughout the region, but I think it is fair to say it will probably take some more time to put a regional effort together for senior college tuition,” Clayborne said.
Danny Spreitler, executive director of the Gilmore Foundation, which will fund Monroe’s university guarantee program, still believes the program can spread.
“When we rolled out our community college program, there was a lot of positive conversation,” Spreitler said. “We need to get in the same room and let’s talk about what we can do in our communities. It is not a game of one-upmanship”
In the meantime, a committee of Tupelo leaders is meeting to study a city plan that would guarantee four years of tuition to Mississippi public universities for city residents who graduate from Tupelo High. Planning for that initiative is still preliminary. One idea had been to fund it with a tax increase, which would need to be approved by voters.
It would also differ from Monroe County’s plan, which would require students in its program to first graduate from community colleges and would then fund two semesters of university studies.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.