Gathering at Capitol asks for more money for two-year colleges

JACKSON — About 100 community college students, teachers and administrators gathered at the state Capitol yesterday to ask Mississippi legislators for more money to meet the needs of a student population that has grown as the economy has struggled.

Wearing green t-shirts that played off the “Survivor” TV show logo, students enrolled in some of the state’s 15 community colleges stood on the steps of the second floor rotunda as administrators made the case for a 39 percent funding increase.

Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board of Community and Junior Colleges, said community colleges need funding now more than ever.

“After the recession our enrollment skyrocketed and our budgets were cut,” Clark said. “We need the Legislature to make community colleges a priority.”

The lack of funding has led to bigger classes and more part-time faculty members, plus delays in repairs and renovations on buildings, Clark said.

Cory Johnson, a student at Hinds Community College in Raymond, studies computer science. The 19-year-old Johnson said he plans to transfer after two years to Mississippi State, but is attending Hinds for two years to help make his undergraduate education affordable.

Johnson enrolled just as the recession was starting to deepen.

“I originally was going to go straight to Mississippi State, but I’d have so many loans, and I was making my decision around the time the economy starting to really home,” Johnson said.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson said that tuition has been on the rise.

“We are pricing people out of higher education in Mississippi,” he said.

Clark asked the crowd three questions: What educational entity is the best bargain? What is the primary entity that trains people for 21st century jobs? And what is the entity that yields the quickest payback on the state’s investment?

Community colleges, the crowd responded each time.

Clark said he knows money is tight and doesn’t expect to get the full 39 percent increase, but hopes to recover to pre-recession budget levels.

The community colleges are hoping that the Legislature can make progress on a four-year-old promise to fund the schools at a pre-student level halfway between K-12 students and students at regional universities.

Community colleges have lost ground on the 2007 goal each of the last four years. Currently, it would take a $2,366 per-student increase to reach that goal.

Clark has said that he doesn’t expect lawmakers to make up that difference in one session.

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