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All about community colleges

In tough times, two-year schools shine; enrollment soars during recession

hen asked what he saw as the biggest threat to Mississippi’s future economy, Dr. Marty Wiseman, professor of political science and director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said he sees potential problems when it comes to workforce training, or the lack thereof. And, where does Wiseman see the solution to this problem?

“Our community colleges are already out there, and I think are doing a pretty darn good job,” he said.

Indeed, the 15 state-supported two-year schools have proven to be an invaluable asset to the state, especially during tough times. The best example is post-Hurricane Katrina. With the landscape literally changed overnight and workers desperate to earn a paycheck, it was the community/junior colleges that quickly adapted, revamped curricula, added programs.

The current “disaster” — the recession — is again putting the two-year schools on the front lines. With unemployment soaring, displaced workers are turning more and more to the two-year schools to get back in the workplace.

Spring 2009 enrollment in credit classes at the 15 state-supported schools was 69,740, an increase of nearly 11 percent over the spring of 2008. This was on top of an increase of 8.2 percent from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008.

The numbers were even more impressive for the Mississippi Virtual Community College (MSVCC). The MSVCC saw record enrollment for the summer 2009 session with 11,574 students enrolled in 19,859 classes. That was a 22.4 percent increase over the summer of 2008. Fall 2008 enrollment was up 17 percent compared to the fall of 2007, and the spring 2009 headcount was 27 percent over the spring of 2008.

Dr. Eric Clark, executive director of the State Board of Community and Junior Colleges (SBCJC), points out that this follows historic trends. When people lose their jobs or worry that they will, they turn to community colleges for new job skills.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government agrees. In a recent report titled “The States and Their Community Colleges,” the institute found Mississippi’s schools were one of only four two-year systems in the nation that was ahead of the national average in all five of the study’s measurements (share of all higher education enrollment, share of state’s total population aged 18 and over enrolled part- or full-time, share of state’s total population aged 18 and over represented by full-time equivalent registration and five-year enrollment growth).

“The high marks Mississippi received in the report reflect what we already know: Mississippi’s community colleges are recognized on a national level as being a leader in higher education,” Clark said.

Since the recession hit, the community colleges have shown their willingness to adapt to the new economic environment. Just a few notable happenings include:

• Jones County Junior College (JCJC) announced in February that it was working with Greene County officials to build a new facility in the county some 60 miles from the college’s main campus at Ellisville. The center would offer adult education (GED), pipefitting, welding, computer skills and college credit courses. This comes less than a year after JCJC cut the ribbon on its new learning center in Bay Springs.

• JCJC, Pearl River Community College (PRCC) and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community have partnered and are now Advanced Manufacturing Centers for Excellence. Part of “Make Things Happen,” a regional initiative to advance training in machining, welding and pipefitting unveiled last April, JCJC received new equipment just last month, and nationally-certified instructors will deliver the advanced skills training.

• Last August, PRCC launched a pilot program with the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) that brought university classes to PRCC’s Poplarville campus. And, last November, Hinds Community College and USM signed a joint agreement for a construction engineering technology program to be offered on Hind’s Raymond campus.

• Coahoma Community College and Mississippi Valley State University signed a cooperation agreement last June that eases the transition between Coahoma and Valley. The agreement means Coahoma students will not lose credit hours when transferring to Valley.

• Last May, East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), acting through the East Mississippi-West Alabama WIRED Initiative, unveiled plans for a new entrepreneur center in Macon. The new facility is the result of a countywide strategic plan that identified the creation of a small-business or entrepreneur incubator as a primary objective.

Speaking on the new center in Macon, Brian Wilson, executive director of the Noxubee Economic and Community Development Alliance, perhaps best summed up the community colleges’ unique position and willingness to meet specific workforce training needs.

“EMCC asked us how they could help with the current revitalization of Noxubee County, so we told them of our need for assistance to guide new entrepreneur’s through the difficult process of starting a new and successful business. They responded by spearheading the construction of a new entrepreneur center in Macon. We are very appreciative of EMCC’s leadership on this project,” he said.

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