University task force zeros in on educational attainment

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Leaders from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University recently began their joint work to boost the fortunes of Northeast Mississippi.
They will focus on improving the region’s education, increasing its average salaries and building up its industries.
But at the center of their goals will be a focus on increasing the number of Northeast Mississippians with high school and college degrees.
The task force between the two universities was announced by MSU President Mark Keenum and University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones in May. It held its first meeting in late July.
The task force contains nine leaders from each university, as well as Lewis Whitfield and Billy Crews from the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi.
“When you look at businesses coming in, most of them are looking for an educated work force,” said task force member David Rock, dean of the University of Mississippi’s School of Education.
“One of our challenges is how do we provide the educational resources for Northeast Mississippi citizens so they can achieve the education they need.”
Interviews with the 20 task force members revealed a similar belief that they key to answering the region’s needs begins with education. More specifically, it starts with improving residents’ educational attainment.
“One of the greatest issues facing Northeast Mississippi is that the per capita income is low in comparison to other areas of the nation,” said Alice Clark, University of Mississippi vice chancellor for Research and Sponsored Programs. “This is most likely tied to our lower educational attainment levels – especially for college degrees.”
At the task force’s first meeting, Whitfield noted that Mississippi trails the nation in per capita income by $12,500 and that Northeast Mississippi is under the state average by $2,500.
In 2009, the region’s per capita income was $26,851.
According to the latest statistics compiled by the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, 69.05 percent of Northeast Mississippians have high school diplomas, 15.9 percent have college degrees and 2.3 percent have graduate-professional degrees.
“We need more of those college graduates for the state of Mississippi, and that is especially true in Northeast Mississippi,” Keenum said.
One issue is creating greater access to universities. Both Mississippi State and Ole Miss now have scholarship programs that cover the cost of tuition for students from low-income families.
Keenum and Jones both said they would like to do even more to reduce financial barriers to college. Each said he would like to see a program similar to the community college tuition guarantee expanded to their universities.
Under that program, county governments, businesses and community foundations pay for two years of community college tuition for all recent high school graduates who live in those counties.
It covers whatever cost remains beyond school scholarships and state and federal grants.
“We need to involve provosts at our respective schools and work with community leaders at providing similar programs for students to go to one of our two schools or Rust College or Blue Mountain College and obtain a four-year degree,” Keenum said.
Jones said that while the Ole Miss and MSU scholarships for people with family incomes below $35,000 annually cover more than a third of the region, they don’t account for “medium-level incomes for which college tuition and room and board are big challenges.”
Beyond attracting students to campus, an important part to raising educational attainment is reducing college dropouts, Whitfield said.
“I think retention is the key element,” he said. “Once kids get in school, there needs to be some help for them to assure they get over some rough spots so they can move forward.”
Bringing leaders together
One power of the task force will be bringing leaders from both universities together to discuss successes they’ve had in retaining students. Perhaps those discussions can become even more regional.
“What I would envision would be an opportunity for K-12 leaders to sit with community college leaders and university leaders all in one room and share the good things they have going on,” Whitfield said.
Larry Ridgeway, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at Ole Miss, said efforts must be made to identify students who have accumulated a significant number of credits but have not yet completed their degree.
“We need to make an effort to put in place outreach programs to identify those folks and put in place what they need and what we can do to assist them in completing their degree requirements,” Ridgeway said.
As the task force continues its work, it will look at other regional challenges, such as health and economic development. But it will also proceed with a belief that many of these issues will be resolved by improving education from early childhood through universities.
“If we have a more educated, better-prepared work force with access to higher education and then continuing education and training, then we are more attractive to business and industry,” said Bill Kibler, vice president for student affairs at Mississippi State.
Added Sarah Rajala, dean of MSU’s Bagley College of Engineering, “Having high-quality education and a strong economy is key to success.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.