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Range of projects aimed at improving skills and opportunities for students

Business, education partnering in state

Across the South, the educational community is working closely with business to get the word out about the need to prepare for college and get a degree. In Mississippi, businesses are getting more involved in promoting education through numerous collaborative efforts.

“Mississippi must increase the number of adults who hold the baccalaureate degree,” said Pam Smith, assistant commissioner for Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL). “Seventeen percent of adults 25 years of age and older hold the baccalaureate degree while the U.S. average is 24%. A college degree is more valuable today than ever.”

The IHL College Fair is one of the most successful team projects. Funded solely by private donations, it was developed to provide high school students with more information about college choices in Mississippi. More than 43,000 high school juniors and seniors have been bused to the Mississippi Trade Mart for the last five years to attend the fair, where they have met faculty and staff from all eight Mississippi public universities — Alcorn State, Delta State, Jackson State, Mississippi State, Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi Valley State, the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi, along with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In 1999, 32 schools participated in the fair. In 2002, 122 schools were represented.

“The outcomes of the fair include motivating students to get started on the college application and financial aid process; showing students through experience and interaction with the students, faculty and staff that they can achieve a college degree; providing information and personal contacts with faculty and staff in one place for all eight universities; providing students with information about the financial aid process; and providing the state with information about how citizens can benefit from and access the university system,” said Smith. “In addition, some counselors follow up with busing students to the universities for campus visits. IHL funds the busing if possible through the sponsorships. This is particularly important to first-generation students who may have little support from their families to seek a college degree.”

None of Mississippi`s neighboring states have a project as comprehensive and collaborative as the college fair, which has won four national awards from The Admissions Marketing Report`s national newspaper and admissions marketing competition. (The college fair in Texas, a state leader for early college recruitment efforts, is funded by state appropriations.)

As a result of help from businesses, universities are able to donate prizes that are raffled throughout the two-day event to students who have completed registration forms. The grand prizes in 2003 included a year`s worth of textbooks at the college or university of choice for three students.

“The majority of the kids have never had any real face-to-face contact with college representatives,” said Walter Becker, realtor/owner of Commercial Real Estate Services of Jackson and co-founder of the fair.

“At the fair, they get a chance to meet the deans or vice presidents of different schools and it means so much more than a quick presentation by a recruiter.”

AmFed Companies, AmSouth Bank, BancorpSouth, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger, Education Services Foundation, GEAR UP MS, Mississippi Affordable College Savings Plan, The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, Trustmark National Bank and Union Planters Bank sponsored the 2003 fair.

“For decades, Trustmark has been involved with IHL and other education-oriented organizations that focus on encouraging and assisting students in their pursuit of a college degree,” said Gray Wiggers, senior vice president and marketing director for Trustmark. “Our management and community volunteers believe that a college degree not only increases the individual`s economic status, but advances the entrepreneurial spirit within each graduate.”

Two years ago, Trustmark president Harry Walker initiated the IHL College Fair Scholarship fund. Since then, businesses have provided $39,000 in scholarships to students as motivation to get started early on the college planning process. Last year, IHL received 100 applications, the first year scholarships were provided. This year, IHL received 400 applications for 41 scholarships worth $500 each.

“When a kid from a poor family that never had someone graduate from college finds out that he or she can go, then little brothers and sisters start to realize they can, too, and the economic well-being of entire families and neighborhoods goes up,” said Becker. “College becomes not just a distant wish, but a real probability. All of a sudden hope becomes desire, and life begins to improve.”

IHL recently provided parents of all Mississippi high school seniors an academic guide, made possible through a grant from Trustmark National Bank, Moore Wallace North America Inc. and Hederman Brothers Printing Inc. The IHL Guide to Academic Programs outlines degree programs at each of Mississippi`s eight public universities, details the financial aid process and provides links to college planning.

BellSouth Mississippi and Cable One in Columbus recently agreed to help sponsor GEAR UP MS, a federal program for economically disadvantaged youth. Primarily funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, GEAR UP MS is a collaborative effort of the IHL, Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, Mississippi Department of Education and various organizations and community groups. Through the program, which serves to reach middle-school students by hosting regional parent seminars on financial aid and college preparation, eighth-grade students will vie for $700 scholarships to the college or university of choice in Mississippi.

“We are also fighting brain drain, because a kid who is educated in Mississippi will tend to stay in Mississippi instead of going out of state and never returning,” said Becker. “Now, in Mississippi, we are getting more and better job opportunities and we need the kids to fill those jobs instead of leaving for other places. Businesses have helped tremendously in this effort, but more work needs to be done.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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