In seven years, the master’s program in economic development at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has grown from eight students to its current enrollment of 27. It is widely recognized and receives applications from all over the country and abroad.
The director, Brent Hales, is pleased with the growth and recognition the program is garnering. “The economic development master’s program has grown more than any graduate program at the university,” he said. “There aren’t many of these programs in the country but more are starting.”
In the two and a half years he’s been at USM, Hales has completed a critical review with alumni and economic development experts to evaluate the program. “We found obvious things we could build on and capture our emerging markets, especially entrepreneurship, innovation and the knowledge-based economy, without losing the foundation of the program and discipline of economic development,” he said. “We also will stay true to our roots.”
The program is now placing a strong focus on theory and internship, requiring students to work in economic development for 300 hours to expose them to practical settings.
“We find that a lot of our students get hired in the places they do internships,” Hales said. “Many of those come from our alumni – that’s another focus we’ve specifically created – and we use their expertise to provide student mentors and give us critical feedback. That has gone over extremely well.”
Once a month a panel of alumni and members from the Mississippi Economic Development Council and the Southern Economic Development Council are invited to participate in a question-and-answer session with students and faculty. “We’re constantly re-tooling the program to make sure our alumni network has opportunities to put their strengths into the program,” he said. “They give their insights.”
The program has also changed to an executive master’s format to accommodate working professionals who desire to earn a master’s degree. Hales says it’s a user-friendly format using a combination of online/in-person instruction approach and weekend classes. Successful completion of the program requires a minimum of 30 hours of study. This innovative format allows students to begin their studies at any time in the year and deal with a large element of the studies in a distance learning manner.
“We have increased our standards for acceptance into the program, but it’s not difficult to get in. Students just must have good test scores,” Hales said. “We plan to put a cap of 30 students on the program.”
In addition to the internship and thesis hours, students are required to take nine core classes scheduled on a rotating basis. These core competencies include economic development theory; research; case studies or scholarly literature addressing the subject; application in field settings; critical analysis of research and application; soft skill/application (teamwork); and financing economic development.
The majority of the program’s graduates find jobs in the South, and their feedback is sought by the program’s faculty. “We ask them to be very critical,” Hales said. “That’s the only way we can continue to develop the program. The graduates are our best recruiters.”
He looks forward to the completion of the Trent Lott Entrepreneurial and Business Center on the USM Hattiesburg campus next spring. The economic development program will move into quarters there. “We hope moving in there will enhance the program even more,” he said. “It’s exciting for us and will give us a chance to host events.”
In 2010, the USM program participants will host the International Community Development Society’s annual conference in New Orleans. “We will get the students involved. We’re working with them and other professional organizations to foster relationships. We encourage students to be involved,” Hales said.
He added that professional organizations also get involved with students through research projects. “It’s one thing to teach economic development and another thing to do it,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”
Hales, who grew up in Utah and California, came south in 1989 and is rearing six children in Petal – something he says shows his commitment to economic development in the state. In the master’s program, he teaches economic development theory, entrepreneurship, rural development and community development.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.