Mississippi faces obstacles to producing more college graduates

JACKSON – If Mississippi is going to reach the national average for the number of people with associate or bachelor’s degrees by 2025, it must get people other than the traditional college student into the classroom.
“People over age 25 must earn credentials. … It can’t be done with high school graduates,” said Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education.
Last week a legislatively created Graduation Rate Task Force recommended as a goal for the state reaching the national average in two-year and four-year degrees by 2025.
To do that, the state must produce an additional 147,150 graduates for a total of about 500,000, or about 965 additional graduates, per year.
Bounds, who is a member of the task force, has embraced the goal and is asking the Board of Trustees of state Institutions of Higher Learning, commonly called the College Board, to do the same.
But based on current trends, there are not enough high school students graduating each year to reach that goals, Bounds conceded to the College Board.
He said part of the focus must be on adults, particularly those who attended college but never obtained a degree.
Another part of that focus is improving the state’s high school graduation rate. Mississippi ranks 45th in percentage of students who graduate from high school.
The percentage of those high school graduates who start college is among the highest in the nation. But a large percentage of them never earn a degree, making Mississippi next to last in the number of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Bounds, who was superintendent of education when the state Board of Education began its current campaign to improve the state’s high school graduation rate, wants the College Board to undertake a similar task on the higher education level.
Part of the recommendation of the Graduation Rate Task Force, and supported by Bounds, is that universities and community colleges receive financial incentives from the state for producing more graduates.
But Alan Perry, a College Board member from Jackson, expressed some reservations.
He said he understands that producing more college graduates will help improve the state’s economy but questioned whether the goal of reaching the national average would serve a purpose.
Perry said he not asking “whether it is wrong, but whether is it right.”
The presidents of both Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi embraced the concept.
“I am encouraged that there is a focus on more graduates for the state of Mississippi,” said MSU President Mark Keenum. “If the state is going to move forward and be all it can be, we need more college graduates. I am all for that. I think we will respond accordingly.”
Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said, “I think Mississippi will benefit from more college graduates. I am pleased to see the commissioner leading the Board toward a consensus goal. I don’t think we understand yet what that goal should be, but I am glad to see we are moving forward.”
As part of the overall goal to produce more college graduates, Bounds said the state must improve the quality and quantity of kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers.
He said students entering the schools of education on average score low on the college entrance exam, yet achieve higher-than-average grade point scores while at the universities.
But too many of the graduates, he said, are unable to pass the teacher certification exam.
To improve the quality, he said, the rigor of the schools of education must be improved.
But especially in the tough economic times, he said, efforts should be made to increase the number of alternative route teachers – people who have expertise in subject areas, but did not major in education.
While they might not be able to find work in the private sector right now, he said that in the teaching field, “The jobs are there. They are available.”
Bounds said the state has to depend on as many as 2,500 emergency licensed teachers each year who are not certified in the area they are teaching.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bachelor’s degrees awarded at all colleges per 1,000 adults
National average 19.1
Mississippi 14.5
Source: Graduation Rate Task Force

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

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