The largest universities and all the community colleges in Northeast Mississippi are bursting at the seams with enrollment increases driven, at least in part, by a weak job market and high unemployment.
The expanded student bodies are a windfall and a challenge. Higher enrollments mean more money from tuition and fees payments, but the recession that has helped drive the student increase has caused state budget cuts costly to both community colleges and universities.
In addition, university endowments at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University have taken hits related to stock and financial markets upheaval.
The enrollment surge comes as President Barack Obama continues pushing a plan to pump $12 billion into community colleges over the next decade, saying they will play a leading role in the economic recovery. But the proposed funding is years away while the crush of students is in full ascendance.
“So far we have had a very promising announcement,” said Norma Kent, vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges, in an earlier newspaper interview. “But for immediate relief, I just don’t see that happening.”
Itawamba Community College President David Cole said in an interview with the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison that the two-campus school has hit 8,122 students this year – a record. Dormitories are overflowing and if ICC had not acquired more space in a former furniture manufacturing building off McCullough Boulevard in western Tupelo, the Tupelo campus would be in gridlock, Cole said.
Cole also said the increase is no surprise because the availability of funds for two years of college education from various sources brings students to campus when jobs are hard to find and when education levels need an upgrade.
Similar stories have been heard nationwide – community college enrollments soaring and universities, despite a declining high school graduate pool, drawing in record numbers.
For universities, the Chronicle of Higher Education, considered the authoritative journal for universities nationwide, reported more than a year ago that the U.S. Department of Education expects record enrollments annually through 2016.
Among the most encouraging developments in Mississippi has been the growth of tuition guarantees for two years of community college, especially across Northeast Mississippi where local governments have partnered with private foundations to pay tuition when all other avenues are exhausted. In addition, in 2008, both the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University reported 20 percent minority enrollments – an amazing fact in a state that was fully segregated educationally until 1962.
Mississippi’s leaders, especially in progressive communities, have pushed the idea for years that higher educational attainment leads to higher lifelong earnings and a higher quality of life.
The recession, which began in December of 2007, has driven unprecedented numbers of students to agree with that advice.
The challenge now expands to developing jobs holding those better-educated students in our state, and, at the same time, adequately funding colleges and universities reaching out to an ever growing number of students.
NEMS Daily Journal