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Mississippi House OKs Bill to Cover Tuition Gaps at Community Colleges

Mississippi state lawmaker Jerry Turner says that when he asks industry leaders what they need, without fail, they have the same response.

"The most important thing to them is an educated workforce," the Republican representative said in a phone interview. "They aren't so much focused on four-year college degrees, as much as technical training."

To get more workers ready to fill high-tech jobs in Mississippi, Turner is proposing that the state cover tuition for recent high school graduates who don't have enough money to attend one of the state's 15 community colleges. The idea appears to have widespread, bipartisan support, based on the 115 to 4 vote earlier this month by the Mississippi House of Representatives in favor of his plan to establish a two-year pilot program that would fill the "gaps" in tuition not covered by other scholarships as well as state or federal financial aid.

The measure now goes over to the Senate for consideration.

To quality for the funding, students must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average and pass at least 15 credits per semester, under the bill as approved. The money would not cover books, fees, room and board or other education-related costs.

"I believe community college is our best tool in the box," Turner says. "For the legislature to be as divided as we've been politically, this was almost a unanimous voice. Everybody recognizes the value of it."

Questions Arise on Paying for Program

The measure is modeled after other tuition guarantee programs now in place at three Mississippi community colleges. Based on the response to those campuses, it is estimated by lawmakers that the new program would cost the state about $2.9 million the first year and $4.5 million the second year. Turner hopes the legislature can find a way to make it a priority and pay for it with existing funds and said he does not expect taxes would be raised to pay for it.

The Mississippi Community College Board helped draft the proposal and Kell Smith, the organization's director of communications and legislative services, says members think the idea has great potential. Schools, however, hope if the bill is passed that funding comes from new money, rather than from existing appropriations. They are also eager to see how many students will actually take advantage of the offer, which would affect the bottom-line cost.

"We expect there to be enrollment increases, but there is no way to know how many [students] to expect," Smith said in a phone interview. When tuition guarantee programs began on a few of the campuses, it attracted more students, but Smith said there wasn't a "boom."

In the heart of the recession in 2010, community college funding was cut four times mid-year, he added. Appropriations have since gone up, yet have not kept pace with enrollment. Still, Smith says the House bill has support.

"It gives access to higher education. It's no longer enough to have just a high school education," he said. "You have to have some postsecondary education... This will allow an opportunity for students to get a foot in the door."

As the need for a more educated workforce increases, states are increasingly looking for ways to make college more affordable and create seamless pathways to higher education.

Mississippi's consideration of expanding access to community college comes on the heels of  Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's announcement earlier this month that he would like to provide students with two free years of community college tuition. If enacted, the Tennessee Promise would be part of the state's larger Drive to 55 campaign to expand the number of residents with college degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

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