JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant is pushing a $3 million plan to pay for community college for students who earn a technical diploma in high school.
Bryant first floated the proposal earlier this month while speaking at Nissan Motor Co. in Canton and repeated it Monday when he made his proposal for the 2015 budget.
The Republican says Mississippi needs to increase the number of skilled manufacturing workers to fill available jobs and encourage employers to relocate or expand in the state. He said that potential employers he meet with are most worried about who they can hire.
“Today the first question is ‘Where is your workforce. Who are they? And are they available for our industry?'” Bryant said Monday.
The proposal looks somewhat like efforts in Mississippi and elsewhere to make community college free for many recent high school graduates. Local governments and private donors are already paying tuition in 26 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. A bill to make that program statewide failed in 2014’s Legislature. Estimates predicted it would only cost about $4.5 million to fund a statewide program that would assist almost 7,000 students. The number is so low because students would apply for federal, state and college aid before the state would step in to cover the remaining bill.
Bryant said he wants his program to be open to anyone who graduates from high school with a career-technical certificate and a C average.
“I believe that workforce training should follow them into community college and I believe we should pay for it,” Bryant told reporters at Nissan.
Other details are still being worked out. For example, spokesman Knox Graham said the Bryant administration isn’t sure yet whether it would require the graduates to take technical classes in community colleges, or allow them to pursue a traditional academic path as well.
Graham said the initial $3 million proposal is based on how many seniors are currently in career-technical programs in high school. There are 7,500 such students in all the high school grades, but Graham couldn’t immediately provide an estimate of how many seniors there were.
The proposed $3 million would be enough to pay for a full year’s tuition for about 1,200 students at the community college average of almost $2,500 a year. If students received other federal and state aid, the money would stretch much further.
The Mississippi Economic Council last year launched a Tech Master award for high school students who take at least four career-tech classes and meet other requirements, including other classes, minimum test scores, 40 hours of community service and a good disciplinary record.
In its first year, 285 students in seven districts earned the award offered by MEC, the state chamber of commerce. Executive Vice President Scott Waller said 60 of Mississippi’s 146 school districts are offering Tech Master this year.
“There are a lot of jobs in this state for craft people and getting them on the right path while they’re in high school will only create additional opportunities,” Waller said.
The existing tuition payment programs kick in after a student seeks aid from the federal and state governments and their community college.
In a 17-county area of northeast Mississippi, a program run by Tupelo’s Create Foundation is paying for 2,730 students this fall. Of those, only 647 needed assistance after applying for other aid. Create Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield said the program is paying $489,272, or $756 per student.
Create backed a bill in the 2014 Legislature by Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, to make Mississippi’s program statewide, but Whitfield said the foundation doesn’t intend to push passage in 2015.
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