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Mississippi's community college leaders look to lawmakers for support

Leaders of Mississippi’s 15 public community colleges have a four-point strategy to increase the college-going and degree-achieving rates of the state’s citizens. On Sept. 17, they asked the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to provide the resources to help make it happen.

The community colleges want to make the path to degrees and certificates more cost-efficient for students and the state by increasing access to higher education and the rate at which students are earning degrees. The overall goal is to build a strong middle class by directing more students to middle-skill jobs that pay a living wage.

“By 2018, two-thirds of the nation’s jobs will require some education and training beyond high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree,” said Dr. William Lewis, president of Pearl River Community College and leader of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges. “Middle-skill workers such as nurses and healthcare specialists, electricians, automotive plant workers, computer technicians and truck drivers are the backbone of Mississippi’s economy.”

The colleges are asking the Legislature to make progress on fulfilling the 2007 mid-level funding law that promised per FTE (full-time equivalent)  for community college students at an amount that was midway between the state’s per-student funding for K-12 and regional public universities.

The Legislature is missing the mid-level funding mark by $2,402 per student, Lewis said.  The state’s per-student spending for K-12 students is $4,828 and $6,125 for public regional institutions like Delta State University and Alcorn State University.  State support for community college students is $3,075, which is 37 percent below the mid-level funding target.

With state revenues on the upward turn, the presidents are asking the Legislature to get their colleges halfway to the mid-level funding commitment, which will take about $86 million in FY 2015. Community college presidents say mid-level funding is needed to keep tuition costs down, to start new programs that fill the gap of skilled workers in Mississippi and to provide intensive student support services that help underprepared students persist and graduation.

Mid-level funding also bolsters faculty resources at the two-year colleges. “Recruiting and retaining highly qualified academic faculty for our university transfer programs and industry trained and credentialed faculty for our career and technical programs are absolutely critical to increasing graduation rates,” said Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College. 

Mid-level funding is the means to bring community college faculty salaries to the mid-point between K-12 and university instructor salaries.  The disparity in community college instructor salaries is $3,575 this year, Muse said. It will take about $23 million to reach the mid-point salary target.

With shrinking Pell Grant eligibility, community college students are particularly vulnerable to increases in tuition and fees. Eleven of the 15 community colleges raised tuition for FY 2014. Across the state, college and university enrollments are leveling off after multiple years of growth. “Affordability is access,” said Dr. Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board.

Most college freshmen (64 percent) start at a community college in Mississippi, where the average ACT score is 19.  Yet, more than half of entering high school graduates doesn’t meet college readiness standards in reading, English and math, Clark said.

Training for high skill, high wage jobs are also a funding issue. “Our colleges are limited by the high start-up cost of equipment, personnel and accreditation for new programs,” said Dr. Glenn Boyce, president of Holmes Community College. “The need is particularly acute in rural areas.”

Preparing Mississippians for higher skill and living wage jobs often starts in Adult Education classrooms where the community colleges teach 18,000 high school dropouts. The colleges are asking the Legislature to provide $10.7 million to fund dropout recovery, which includes job training as a part of the Adult Education program.

Fewer than 2,000 students in the Adult Education program have a literacy level above the eighth grade and the path to a GED (high school equivalency diploma) is expected to get more difficult when a revised test debuts in January 2014. The test cost will also increase from $75 to $120 and will be computer-based. 

“Strengthening and broadening Mississippi’s tax base rests in the earning power of its citizens. People without education and viable job skills are consumers, instead of contributors, to the state’s economy. The community college plan for dropout recovery is economic development,” said Dr. Scott Elliott, president of Meridian Community College.

With a high school dropout rate hovering near 40 percent, Mississippi can’t make significant strides toward the goal of more college degrees, unless it increases its number of GED achievers who successfully transition to college.

“It’s all about empowering people with earnings power. When you’ve got a viable skill, you earn more money. When you earn more money, you pay more personal income and sales taxes.  When folks pay more taxes, the state has greater resources to improve such public services as schools, roads, health care, and law enforcement,” Elliott said.

Clark reminded legislators that Mississippi ranks sixth in the nation for the number of bachelor’s degree completers who have previously attended a community college, according to a September 2012 report released by the National Student Clearing House (NSCH). One year later, the NSCH reported that 76 percent of university students completed a bachelor’s degree after they transferred with a two-year associate’s degree from a community college.

In addition to being the “go-to” institutions for workforce training, more students start at a community college and transfer to a university. In fact, 64 percent of all Mississippi college freshmen start at a community college and half of all students taking credit undergraduate courses are at a community college.

In addition to the mid-level funding request, the colleges are asking for $186 million for capital improvements, including $30 million for educational technology, and $9 million for a Mississippi Community College Board headquarters building.

The community colleges enroll more than 77,000 for-credit students, another 75,000 in workforce training programs and 18,000 students in Adult Education programs.