EDITORIAL: Squeezed

Mississippi’s statewide system of community colleges is considered one of the best in the nation. Its accessibility, affordability and close connection to economic development efforts across the state make it a source of great tangible benefit to individuals and communities.
Northeast Mississippi has a particularly strong link with community colleges and can take pride in the strong financial support it provides, with many counties providing the maximum allowable local tax support. The region has also led the way with its innovative tuition guarantee programs, which ensure that no student will be denied at least two years of college because of money.
Yet this efficient, effective system of 15 institutions is in a sense a victim of its own success. Enrollment is soaring, yet state funding is falling.
The recession has sent more students in search of the close-to-home, low-cost community college education. But the recession has also hammered the state budget, and that has affected the money community colleges get.
Their enrollment was up 16 percent last spring, yet their state appropriation from the 2010 Legislature – which is for the fiscal year that began July 1 – is down more than 10 percent.
Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board of Community and Junior Colleges, put the resulting dilemma this way in a visit to Tupelo last week: “It is really hard to squeeze a 16 percent enrollment increase and a budget cut of more than 10 percent into the same box.”
Tuition payments from the additional students won’t do it; tuition pays only about 30 percent of the cost of a student’s education.
The big-picture concern of Clark, one that community college presidents regularly cite, is that the Legislature has regressed on its 2007 commitment to provide “midway” funding for community colleges – a per student appropriation halfway between K-12 expenditures and those of the smaller state universities. They’re not even equal with K-12, much less halfway to the regional university level.
All levels of education in Mississippi are suffering from inadequate funding, and it will take a concerted effort – including consideration of new sources of revenue as the economy improves – to get them anywhere close to where they need to be. But the community colleges’ argument that their long-touted efficiency isn’t inexhaustible under the strain of exploding enrollment bears attention.
The answer is not to pit the three education sectors in Mississippi against each other, as has happened so often in the past when resources were scarce or the Legislature was just plain chintzy. The answer is for Mississippi to develop a long-range plan as we emerge from the recession that charts ways to keep the commitments it has already made.

NEMS Daily Journal