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Bounds chosen at crossroads for Miss. higher ed

As a child growing up on a small rural Mississippi farm, Hank Bounds never thought he’d have the chance to go to college.

Three decades later, the 41-year-old from the small town of Brooklyn was chosen Wednesday as the state’s new commissioner of higher education and is focused on ensuring children with similar backgrounds can be sure they have access to a degree.

“We didn’t have many resources in our family, and so I felt that would prevent me from ever having an opportunity,” Bounds said. “So what we have to do is be mindful that we have lots of those types of young people in the state that don’t have access to lots of dollars, but we need to disabuse them of the notion that they can’t go to college.”

The College Board unanimously chose Bounds as the new head of the Institutes of Higher Learning on Wednesday, two weeks after naming him the preferred candidate.

The Mississippi Department of Education superintendent takes over at a critical time for the state’s universities.

The College Board could approve a tuition increase Thursday after raising the cost of higher education 12 out of the last 13 years. Yet the average cost of tuition and fees sits at $4,742, well below the national average of $6,585 for four-year colleges in 2008-09.

“I think it’s premature for me to give you a position on where we are other than I want to do everything I can to mitigate against future tuition increases,” Bounds said.

Bounds will start his new job in late July, but he doesn’t plan to leave the ideas he had for K-12 schools behind. Part of the reason he was chosen for the job is his view that learning shouldn’t be divided into segments, but should rather be “vertically aligned.”

Bounds can become the leader of “education” in the state, which could include K-12, community colleges and universities, said outgoing University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, who was chairman of the advisory committee that chose Bounds.

Bounds has been state superintendent since 2005. Before that, he was superintendent of the Pascagoula school district and was educated entirely in the state with degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss.

He replaces Thomas C. Meredith in the top administrative job overseeing the state’s eight universities. Meredith retired in November after an investigation into free landscaping performed at his home by Mississippi State University workers.

Though he has no experience as an administrator on the college level, Khayat said Bounds beat out five other candidates who did. Khayat and Southern Miss President Martha Saunders said Bounds stood out because of his ideas and working knowledge of the obstacles facing educators in one of the nation’s poorest states.

“We’ve crossed paths a few times and I’ve been very, very impressed, long before I thought he was going to be my boss,” Saunders said. “I like his creativity. Education is a complicated world. There are no quick fixes. There are no simple solutions.”