Bridging the educational gap from Miss. two-year schools to universities

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 8, 2007

Thousands of students donning caps and gowns will step off two-year college stages clutching hard-earned associate’s degrees this spring.

Only a quarter will go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and for state Higher Education Commissioner Tom Meredith, there’s lots of room for improvement that could play a major role in whether Mississippi can compete globally.

Strengthening partnerships between two-year and four-year public schools is the key, he said, and when it comes to funneling students from community and junior colleges into universities, officials say the University of Southern Mississippi is helping to lead the way.

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“Thirty years ago, 30 percent of the world’s enrollment in higher education was in the United States; today, it’s at 14 percent and falling,” Meredith said. “My concern is that we’re losing ground.”

In Mississippi, the situation is especially dire — only 17 percent of residents are college graduates compared to 24 percent nationally. By 2012, Mississippi is projected to have more jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree than there will be degree holders to fill them, the College Board has said.

Those facts aren’t lost on Jones County Junior College sophomore Darren Scoggin, who plans to enter USM this summer right after receiving his associate’s degree.

“I always wanted to get a professional degree,” said Scoggin, 19, who plans to pursue a career in medicine. “Coming to Jones first meant I had the opportunity to be in a low-key environment with people who can help you and you don’t feel the pressure right away of being at a university.”

A pathway from associate’s to bachelor’s degree helps students save money on quality education, Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College presidents William Lewis and Jesse Smith respectively said.

Thousands of Mississippians have gotten the message; more of the state’s college freshmen are entering two-year colleges than universities.

To help achieve Meredith’s goal of doubling the number of community college students that enter universities, the College Board created a position dedicated to community and junior college relations, and in that capacity Reginald Sykes, former president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jefferson Davis campus, has been working to grease the transitional wheels.

That means ensuring credits transfer smoothly, admissions requirements made known to students and that both higher education systems work hand in hand to move students up the academic ladder. USM and its two-year college partners are leading the state in that feat, Sykes said.

“They get (two-year college) students on campus and let them know what they have to offer,” he said of the university.

The university goes to the colleges as well. It’s made admissions counseling personnel available at JCJC, PRCC and MGCCC; it sends faculty to colleges to advise instructors what students should be learning to prepare for university work and more, officials said. By June, the university hopes to have set up electronic transcript transfer systems to make things even easier.

The efforts have paid off. Transfer students account for almost half of USM’s student body.

“We’ve just made it a priority,” said Joan Exline, assistant to the president for accreditation, planning and articulation, who works closely with two-year colleges on credit transfer issues and noted that USM won a College Board Best Practices Award for its community college relations.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for students,” she said.

Once two-year college transfers are on campus, USM doesn’t leave them in the lurch. Its transfer student division of the Office of First-Year Experience is unique in the state, said Joe Paul, vice president of student affairs.

“The worst thing you can do is treat a community college transfer like a freshman,” he said. “They already know how to do college.”

Shea Houze oversees that operation, and works with them to fight “transfer shock” and get them involved in university life.

“Many of them have jobs, families and other financial commitments … so it can be more difficult for them to engage,” Houze said.

The point is to make the transition to universities for today’s two-year college students as seamless as possible to ensure Mississippi can compete in an increasingly tough intellectual marketplace.

“Two-year college graduates are desperately needed and play an incredibly important role in our economic development,” Meredith said. “However, we know that the pace of the world is such that a baccalaureate degree is increasingly necessary.”