JACKSON — Last month, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) board members adopted a rather lofty goal: doubling the number of adult learners in the state’s university system from 10,000 students to 20,000 by 2004.
The initiative was approved after College Board members reviewed an extensive report, “Report on Continuing Education: Mississippi Adult Workers as Lifelong Learners,” authored by Dr. William E. McHenry, IHL’s assistant commissioner for academic affairs. The study showed that Mississippi ranks last in the percentage of adult workers taking advantage of higher education opportunities. Even though Mississippi’s per capita income has increased nearly $5,000 since 1994, the state is still ranked 50th in the nation, and the state’s average hourly earnings of $11.62 ranks 48th in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Our eight public universities are focusing well on traditional students and are meeting their needs with quality academic programs on quality campuses, financial aid packages and student services, but we haven’t focused in a coherent manner on adult learners,” McHenry said. “If you look at the profile of our workforce, we have a large number of adults who perhaps could benefit from higher education. We want to make sure they have that option.”
According to the latest available census data, Mississippi’s adult workforce includes 423,627 individuals with high school diplomas, 259,477 with some college credit, 79,264 with associate degrees and 149,109 with bachelor’s degrees.
McHenry said there are several reasons Mississippi’s educational profile isn’t rosier.
“We’re rural. Many states have urban centers where many adult workers are located, so they can go to school after work or on weekends, where as our residents may have to drive some distances to get to a university,” he said. “Educational levels. Sometimes, if you look at a profile of the educational attainment of Mississippi versus the rest of the nation, we’re doing OK, but we don’t have as many folks working that have some college, such as an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or higher degree. Our state has too high of a high school dropout rate, which we (IHL) can’t do much about. Those aspects that IHL can address, we’ll do so.”
The College Board study included the following findings:
• The typical adult college student is a highly computer literate, white, 40-year-old female who works full time.
• Of these adult learners, 90% have access to a computer to take college courses.
• The majority of adults pay their own way through college, using personal funds.
• The most powerful motivating factor for adults to return to college is the need to gain new competencies to advance or change careers and/or to stay current in their fields.
• Other motivating factors include life events, or triggers, such as divorce, loss of job or moving to a new community.
Sue Pace, chief continuing education officer (CCEO) for the University of Southern Mississippi’s Continuing Education/Distance Learning Program, said IHL’s initiative will facilitate economic development in the state.
“An educated workforce is one of the main criteria that businesses and industries look for when locating in any state,” Pace said. “Also, a greater level of work skills such as critical thinking/problem solving/technical reading and writing and math skills are needed in this technology era. Consequently, higher education must make access to such learning readily available to the adult worker.”
The report recommended the establishment of the Mississippi Multi-Institutional Electronic Campus and the Mississippi Partnership for Adult Continuing Education (PACE) to assist adult workers in strengthening and updating their workforce skills by increasing their participation in higher education programs.
“The Multi-Institutional Electronic Campus will provide adult workers with a ‘one-stop portal’ to search for degrees or certificate programs from any Mississippi university, complete an admission form and enroll and take a course or courses from one or more institutions in a variety of learning methodologies, such as Internet-based, interactive video or correspondence courses and degree programs,” Pace said.
Additional recommendations include IHL’s support of special adult-focused student support services and the establishment of a statewide marketing initiative to attract and inform adult learners.
For example, adult learners don’t have to take the ACT, a prerequisite of college admission for high school graduates, McHenry said.
“Adults must have a high school education, of course,” he said. “They can enroll and take up to three courses as a conditionally admitted student. If they do well in those three courses, they can continue.”
McHenry said he plans to work closely with business leaders on the initiative.
“The business community needs to know we’re going to do a better job of providing opportunities for adult learners, and that we need their support,” he said. Thomas Colbert, chairman of the College Board’s academic affairs committee and chairman of Brandon-based Community Bank’s holding company, Community Bancshares of Mississippi Inc., which employs about 350 people, has firsthand experience of the benefits of a better-educated workforce.
“I’m such a believer in education that we’ve always paid for the tuition of employees that wanted to further their education,” he said. “We had an employee in Forest who got an associate’s degree at Meridian Community College, completed her accounting degree from Mississippi State University in Meridian, got a better job and left. But it wasn’t bad. She sends us business, is a great friend and supporter. If we can help give people a leg up the ladder, it comes back to us.”
Continuing education officers have already seen marked growth in the continuing education programs.
“After three quarters of the present fiscal year, the income from distance courses is double that of last year,” said Clayborne Taylor, Ph.D., CCEO for Mississippi State University. “Evidently our new program development has been effective and we intend to continue.”
McHenry said IHL will work with — not compete with — community colleges in attracting adult learners.
“If you look at the educational profile of our state, we have to not worry about whether or not one segment is competing with another,” he said. “We’re working with community colleges on a number of projects, and if you’ll look at the Web site, www.studentadvisorms.org, it’s the best illustration of how we’ve already committed to working together.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.