Education attainment New Census report affirms urgency of corrective action

A U.S. Census report last week ranked Mississippi highest among all the states in the percentage of its population without a high school diploma.

The Census puts the “dropout” rate at 21.1 percent of adults 25 and older not graduating from high school. Another way of stating it is that Mississippi’s education attainment rate is damagingly inadequate.

The Tupelo-based CREATE Foundation notably took significant first steps last week to raise education attainment in Northeast Mississippi with grants for Itawamba, Northeast and East Mississippi community colleges to start tuition guarantee programs – a long-time goal of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi. CREATE and the commission partner in areas of mutual concern, including a regionwide dropout recovery and prevention initiative.

The $60,000 given to the three community colleges will be joined with support from private-sector financial partners. The new investment is a pilot program, and it will be available to students in the class of 2008 in the region’s high schools. Private, federal and state funds must first be applied to tuition costs before CREATE money is accessed.

A full program is estimated to cost $1.247 million for the three community colleges, and other sources obviously need to be cultivated to achieve that funding level.

The program is fashioned after a similar, successful tuition plan operating in Meridian and Lauderdale County for students at Meridian Community College.

Community colleges are a well-equipped and powerful source of both academic programs and advanced workforce training. A combination of the two increases the employability of many students for the best jobs not requiring a college degree. Going on to community college and successfully completing an associate’s degree also increases the chances that students will achieve a bachelor’s degree, further raising their successful job probabilities.

Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE Foundation and an expert on dropouts in the region, believes the dropout percentage is higher, and he is supported by his extensive research for CREATE and the commission. Whitfield said the 2000 Census data is more accurate, showing 27 percent of Mississippians 25 or older who have not finished high school.

By any measure, the sheer number of under-educated people in our state and region is huge and demands effective action. Mississippi’s population is pushing 3 million, so even at the low-end 21.1 percent, about 600,000 Mississippians – regardless of where they were born or dropped out of school – lack a high school diploma. That means, in practical terms, that job and prosperity options are self-limiting. We are in a competition with ourselves on this issue, and the way to measure progress is in both prevention and reduction.

CREATE, the commission, and the Mississippi Department of Education have related and major goals to reduce the dropout rate by 50 percent in the next seven years.

As the dropout rate declines the impetus to education beyond high school increases, and the link to a tuition guarantee program for community colleges becomes even more important.

Nothing about dropout prevention and reduction and increasing education attainment can be casual. Everything must be intentional and regularly measured.

Northeast Mississippians, in particular, have a high stake in educational attainment as unprecedented new jobs growth related directly or indirectly to the Toyota Mississippi investment unfolds.

As state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds said last week, “Businesses, faith-based organizations and the media all have a role to play … Northeast Mississippi is an outstanding example of how business and community efforts can work in conjunction with the state and local initiatives under way to help us reach this goal.”

As with many other issues, private-sector initiative partnering with the appropriate government sectors will work better than government alone. Our region has used that method with success for 60 years in the post-World War II economic evolution.

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