Community colleges highlight needs to solons

More than 100 Mississippi community college students, faculty, staff and administrators flooded the Capitol in Jackson Wednesday to ask legislators to continue their financial support of the 15 colleges.

“We are not just another group of people who want more money,” said Dr. Holly Crane, Meridian Community College Associate Degree Nursing Program instructor, as she addressed the crowd gathered in the rotunda area for the Mississippi Community College system’s Capitol Day 2019 news conference.

“We, the community college system in this state, are the catalyst that grows this economy and we are simply asking that our legislators – our leaders – to invest in us as we invest in our students,” she said.

Crane was one of seven Mississippi community college speakers who shared statistics, testimonials and success stories with the Capitol audience about the need for additional funding for the Mississippi community colleges.

Dr. Mary Graham, chair of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges and president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, addressed the value of Mississippi community colleges. Graham said, “If you want to re-establish America’s middle class – particularly Mississippi’s middle class, then you need to help us in our community college system.”

For every state tax dollar invested in community colleges, Mississippi gets back $4.86, or a 386 percent net return, said Dr. Jesse Smith, legislative co-chair of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges and president of Jones College. “That’s a worthwhile investment,” he added.

Another statistic: Three billion dollars in sales and income tax is contributed to Mississippi by each community college graduating class throughout their lifetimes.

“Mississippi community colleges grow Mississippi like no other tax dollar, but, sadly, in 2018 we received about the same level of funding our counterparts at Mississippi Institutions of Higher learning received in 1979,” Crane told the group.

“This is simply unacceptable,” she added.

Other speakers included Dr. Jim Haffey, legislative co-chair of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges and president of Holmes Community College; Adam Conner, a political science student at Northwest Community College; Dr. Andrea Mayfield, executive director of the Mississippi Community College board; Mary Warren, president of the Mississippi Faculty Association of Community College and Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi Secretary of State.

Conner said he quit college the first time he took classes because of difficulties in chemistry. When he tried to return a year later, he learned he was not eligible for the Pell Grant. Conner didn’t feel financially apt as an 18-year-old to take out a loan, so he waited until he turned 24 to be eligible for aid as an independent student.

“A quality education provides an array of benefits, but there are many barriers to success. Rising tuition, time, and financial aid restrictions keep countless Mississippians from accessing higher education,” said Conner. “Every Mississippian is entitled to opportunities for educational and professional growth.”

Without more support for community colleges, Haffey is concerned more people will be dependent on the state. Haffey said his mom earned her nursing degree at Hinds Community College after 20-years of raising kids and being a housewife. He calculated a 1,600 percent return on the states’ investment into her education from the state taxes she paid over the 26-years she worked at a rural county hospital.

“There are hundreds of Mississippians who do not get a chance to enroll at an allied health program every year because we have limitations on our space. We stand poised to help hundreds, but we cannot open or expand new programs without a strong commitment from the state. Two years ago, the community colleges were cut 11-percent while the state made other areas a priority. I’m asking the Legislature to restore those cuts immediately and invest in a proven economic development entity, the Mississippi Community Colleges.”

Mayfield added community colleges are the best value for the taxpayers and individuals seeking an education.  “The community college system does it all while offering affordable college tuition, and with every experience, you can find at a university. But, you can also (earn a degree) and begin work without a large debt. The community college’s purpose is to put people to work, and it’s the best value to Mississippi’s economy.”

“Never think what you do doesn’t matter,” Hosemann said. “What Y'all do is important,” he said to the community college supporters. “Most of Mississippians will come through their jobs from these men and women who are standing here. They need our support,” he added.

Mississippi community colleges train over 100,000 workers each year for increasingly and fundamentally important middle-skill jobs, putting graduates to work immediately. “We, the community colleges in Mississippi, fill in the middle skills gap like no one else can,” Crane said.

The Mississippi Faculty Association started the day with speeches at the Capitol steps with students, faculty, staff and administrators standing in support.