By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
RIPLEY – Mississippi’s community colleges are assuming more and more responsibility for preparing young people just entering the workforce as well as retooling older workers for the new economy.
While community colleges are expanding their role, offering more programs and attracting more students, the state Legislature has not provided a fair share of education funding to keep pace with funding for public K-12 education and state four-year institutions.
As a 2012 appointee to the Mississippi Board for Community Colleges, Cheryl Thurmond of Ripley sees a major part of her role as helping increase the level of funding to two-year colleges that they need to fulfill their mission.
“Community colleges give students the ‘bang for the buck,’” Thurmond said. “In Mississippi, 68 percent of all college freshmen in public institutions are enrolled in community colleges.”
Though the state passed legislation in 2007 that guaranteed per student funding for community colleges that is halfway between per student funding in K-12 schools and public four-year colleges and universities, the fact is that community colleges only receive 52 percent of that amount. For fiscal year 2011, state funding per child for K-12 students was $4,560, for public universities was $5,803 and for community colleges was $2,686. That amount was $2,495 below what it should have been.
“Of the students enrolled at our community colleges, 97 percent are from Mississippi, so the money stays in the state and we are serving our own state residents,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond’s passion for community colleges arises from two aspects of her personal history. First, she is a community college alumna and knows first-hand what community colleges have to offer. Second, having worked for many years in the South Tippah School District as an attendance officer, she was able to reclaim many high school dropouts and direct them to community college for workforce training and higher education.
“I’m so excited to be on this board because community colleges have so much to offer,” Thurmond said. “I have a passion for young people who for whatever reason didn’t make it through school, and community colleges provide people with an avenue to get training and meaningful jobs. They serve the community’s employers and residents.”
Dropout recovery is another priority of the community college board as they work to increase the state graduation rate, which translates into attracting more employers offering high-wage jobs.
Funding must be increased significantly to make community college programs more effective, but it’s well worth it, Thurmond believes.
“The schools, communities, courts and I as an attendance officer could work, work and work and not get a kid through high school,” she said. “This avenue gives them one more chance at success.”
Thurmond gave the students her best as an attendance officer for 31 years before retiring in June and going to work as social services director at Golden Living Center.
She is a licensed social worker, having graduated from Northeast Mississippi Community College before earning her bachelor’s degree in social work from Mississippi State University.
“This is a whole new world for me, and I love the work and the residents,” Thurmond said. “When I received the appointment, the administrators here encouraged me and wanted me to serve.”
After being recommended by U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, Thurmond was appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant and began serving on the board in July. Thurmond and her husband Keith Thurmond live in Ripley. They have two adult children – Ross Thurmond of Madison and Holly Thurmond of Washington, D.C.
Since assuming her seat on the board, Thurmond has already played a key role, testifying before the Legislature during budget hearings in October.
“The fall 2012 preliminary head count of students in Mississippi community colleges was 81,311,” Thurmond said. “We’re the primary entity for teaching job skills and providing training for high-wage middle skills.”