Report: Miss. ed rate lagging

Mississippi is making some progress in key education areas but is still lagging behind most states in the region, shows a report from the Southern Regional Education Board scheduled to be released today.

Mississippi still ranks toward the bottom in the rate of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, retention figures and faculty salaries, according to the SREB’s 2009 Fact Book on Higher Education.

But two areas SREB leaders are looking to for the region’s future – minority graduation and tuition prices – appeared to be the silver lining in Mississippi’s report.

“The main theme this year is that SREB states need many more young adults to complete four- and two-year degrees and career certificates, but demographic changes and rising tuition and fees will make that a challenge,” SREB spokesman Alan Richard said in an e-mail. “These issues deserve much more attention from all SREB states, and many leaders who are involved with SREB know it.”

In Mississippi, 40 percent of black and 46 percent of Hispanic students graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years – figures in line with national and regional trends.

At $4,700 a year, Mississippi’s average tuition rate is lower than the regional average but still is higher than states such as Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. All have higher per-capita income rates.

In-state tuition has gone up at Mississippi’s eight public universities in 11 of the past 12 years, but state College Board members said last week they felt the recession made it unreasonable to sign off on another hike, even though universities had sought further increases.

In the past 20 years, in-state tuition has nearly tripled from about $1,672 a year.

During last week’s College Board meeting, members discussed the rising cost and its effect on Mississippians’ ability to go to college.

“We’ve never faced an economic situation like this,” College Board President Scott Ross said. “I just think this is a different time, and we can’t expect people to pay more in this economy.”

The board still voted 6-4 in favor of increasing on-campus housing fees at all universities – at the request of the presidents, which will add to costs to attend.

Today’s report shows Mississippi still falls behind all states in the region except West Virginia in the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher but has seen some growth in recent years.

In 2007, 19 percent of adults 25 and older had bachelor’s or higher degrees – up from 17 percent in 2000.

And much of the growth in recent years has been in key demographics – women and minority students, according to the report.

Women have jumped from 58 percent of Mississippi’s bachelor’s degree holders in 1997 to 62 percent in 2007. The percentage of black and Hispanic graduates jumped from 27 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2007.

“Keeping college affordable will be a major factor in removing participation and completion gaps,” SREB President Dave Spence said in a statement released with the report. “We also need to continue to change the culture of many public colleges and universities into an environment that supports students’ pursuits of degrees.”

As for retention, Mississippi saw a one-point gain in the percentage of full-time freshmen in 2001 who had not dropped out of college.

About 54 percent of those who enrolled in 2001 had graduated, were still attending or had transferred to another school by 2007, the report shows. That average is the lowest in the region; the SREB average was 73 percent.

The gain over the same figure for 1996 also was significantly lower than Mississippi’s neighboring states. Louisiana improved its progression rate by seven points, and Alabama went up nine points.

The SREB report, which compares states in several areas, also shows faculty salaries are lagging, with pay at Mississippi’s schools near the bottom of the region.

Only West Virginia and Arkansas were below Mississippi’s $62,700-a-year average.

But Mississippi’s average rose 5 percent in the past 20 years – a rate close to the national average as well as the SREB average, according to the report.


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