OUR OPINION: Community colleges need more funding

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s community college leaders, like all other state agency heads, became supplicants for a few hours last week in meetings of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which went through the motions of discussing the 2013 state budget.
More than 81,000 Mississippians attend the 15 colleges, divided into geographic districts statewide. Enrollment dropped slightly this fall but that is in the face of a record 83,000 students in 2010-2011 – many seeking academic refuge and jobs training in a recession-ravaged jobs market.
The record enrollment pushed all the schools to physical capacity, compounding budget issues stemming from inadequate state funding that falls far short of laws passed by the Legislature, mandating a “mid-level” per student funding formula.
The law, as explained in a community college association document “… would provide FTE (full-time equivalent) community college student funding midway between per-student funding for K-12 and the regional public universities. State funding per community college FTE is 24 percent less than it was in 2000.”
The community colleges seek only half of what the law says they’re entitled to receive – an additional $76.9 million to bring them half-way to mid-level funding. Full financial compliance by the Legislature would require $153.9 million to push funding to the level promised in 2007 legislation.
The official statement from the community colleges is predictably moderate and conciliatory, but the fact is that the Legislature, when it comes to education, makes promises it won’t keep, as in full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Too few senators and representatives understand that education – from kindergarten through graduate school – is the ladder on which Mississippians will climb off the bottom of the American economy.
Community colleges have had notable success in raising the educational attainment level of adults lacking high school diplomas. The national goal of increasing by 50 percent the number of Americans with a post-secondary certificate by 2020 is a good one, and an even more basic goal presses Mississippi: “The reality is that Mississippi doesn’t have the pool of college-ready high school graduates to meet that ambitious goal,” said Dr. Scott Elliott, Meridian Community College president and chairman of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges.
About 400,000 working-age Mississippians don’t have a high school diploma or GED. The community colleges seek $11.5 million for dropout recovery, which would be money well spent and with a strong chance for return on investment.
The budget hearings weren’t appropriations votes, but they provided a picture of real need.