NORTHEAST MISSISSIPPI — Leaders from two of Mississippi’s eight public universities are setting aside traditional rivalries and working together to boost the economy of the northeastern part of the state.
A task force includes leaders from Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi. Members will focus on improving education, increasing average salaries and building up industries for the region.
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports that one of the main goals will be to increase the number of people with high school diplomas and college degrees.
“When you look at businesses coming in, most of them are looking for an educated work force,” said task force member David Rock, dean of the University of Mississippi’s School of Education. “One of our challenges is how do we provide the educational resources for Northeast Mississippi citizens so they can achieve the education they need.”
The task force includes nine leaders from each university, plus Lewis Whitfield and Billy Crews from the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi.
Whitfield said Mississippi trails the nation in per capita income by $12,500 and that Northeast Mississippi is under the state average by $2,500. In 2009, the region’s per capita income was $26,851.
The statistics compiled by the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi show that nearly 69.1 percent of northeast Mississippi residents have high school diplomas, 15.9 percent have college degrees and 2.3 percent have graduate or professional degrees.
Mississippi State and Ole Miss have scholarship programs that cover the cost of tuition for students from low-income families.
Keenum and Jones said they would like to do more to reduce financial barriers to college.
Jones said that while the Ole Miss and MSU scholarships for people with family incomes below $35,000 annually cover more than a third of the region, they don’t account for “medium-level incomes for which college tuition and room and board are big challenges.”
Beyond attracting students to campus, an important part to raising educational attainment is reducing college dropouts, Whitfield said.