CHARLIE MITCHELL: Mississippians closing higher education gap

If all Mississippi community college students gathered in one place they’d create the second-largest city in Mississippi.
There are 88,800 of them this fall according to a tally released last week by the state Community College Board. That’s more than the population of Gulfport (71,000), which follows only Jackson (184,000) in census estimates.
Not only are there a heck of a lot of students in community colleges, the numbers keep rising. This year’s tally is up another 7.2 percent. Of the 15 colleges operating nearly 40 campuses in the state, 14 reported increases – several of them records and some in double digits.
What’s going on?
– Well, obviously, a lingering lack of jobs. Here and in states bordering Mississippi, more than one in 10 people looking for a way to earn a paycheck report they are unable to find work. Without a job, what’s a person – especially a young person – to do? Go to school or, in many cases, back to school.
– So-called “workforce training” programs are on the rise. Even before the national recession, Gov. Haley Barbour and legislative leaders tasked the state’s community college network to play an essential role in training willing workers for specific types of jobs. More recently, the federal stimulus plan directed billions into community colleges, including those in Mississippi, to cover the costs (and in hope there actually will be jobs for those who complete the coursework) of workforce training.
– Bargain shopping may be a factor. Tuition at Northwest Community College were $975 this semester. Unofficially, the total cost of an on-campus semester at Northeast Community College was estimated at $4,308.
The $975 compares with $2,628 in tuition and fees at Delta State University this fall. Mississippi State University now estimates total expenses (housing, food, books and such) for in-state students at $9,600 per semester.
There are many incentives including state and federal grants and scholarships available for higher education either at a community college or a four-year state university, but any way you slice it a year at a community college costs about half as much as a university. Housing and meal expenses, especially, are lower for the average community college student because many, if not most, live at home and commute to a campus nearby.
– Less-effective high schools may be a factor. It’s not proven, but university leaders in Mississippi have long lamented that students arriving on campus are not really ready for university work. The universities have bunches of programs (and loathe the term “remedial”) aimed at ramping up poorly prepared students and retaining them until they can earn a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges can be a bridge to a four-year degree.
Mississippi continues to manage its community colleges and universities separately, setting them up almost as competitors. Dr. Eric Clark, former secretary of state, administers the Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges and Dr. Hank Bounds is commissioner for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. They have their own budgets, own plans, own agendas.
This division is so distinct that the Legislature has long had fairly distinct “pro-community college” and “pro-university” camps among members, but even though state funding has been on the downswing – and may be about 25 percent less two years from now than it was last year – universities are bursting at the seams, too.
The four-year schools, which include graduate and professional schools in dentistry, law, pharmacy, medicine and others, will have about 80,000 students this fall. That’s fewer than the community colleges, but up about 20,000 students in the past 12 years. That’s a phenomenal growth rate. It means one of every 18 or so Mississippi residents is actively engaged in higher education.
While the state’s dropout rate gets a lot of ink and airtime, consider that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 64 percent of Mississippians had a high school diploma and 15 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2000, those numbers had increased to 73 percent and 17 percent and for 2007 the estimates were 78 percent and 19 percent.
The state is still well below many others and national averages (85 percent and 28 percent in 2007), but is closing the gap even as the national averages rise, too.
It hasn’t been a secret to anyone that better education leads to better jobs and higher compensation. Economic developers need a stronger education climate as a tool in their arsenal to recruit employers.
The economy may still be looking bad, but things have never looked better, at least from an enrollment perspective, for community colleges and universities in Mississippi.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

Charlie Mitchell