Twin focus on making and keeping Miss. college grads

It’s not a new pitch, but Higher Education Commissioner Glenn Boyce is making it again — Mississippi needs to get more educated in a hurry.

Speaking last week to the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government, the overseer of Mississippi’s eight public universities said the state needs a more highly educated workforce, but also needs to find businesses that will keep those graduates from leaving.

“If we as a state, if we don’t improve postsecondary attainment quick, fast and hard, we will not be able to compete for the future,” Boyce said. “And I would suggest to you, from what I’ve observed over the last few years since the recession, I’m not sure we’re going to be able compete in the present.”

If anything, it is the brain-drain part of the argument that’s new. According to a report prepared last year for the College Board, only a few more than half of the graduates of Mississippi’s eight public universities are working in the state five years after graduation. Those who earn degrees in high-paying fields such as engineering, math, and physical sciences are among the most likely to leave. Boyce says he’s experienced the problem himself, with two of his three children moving out of state.

“What we’ve got to figure out is how to bring in business and industry that keeps our university graduates here,” Boyce said.

An economic issue

Boyce is not the only one sounding the alarm over college-educated workers leaving Mississippi. Joe Max Higgins, maybe the state’s most successful local economic developer, says he fears that’s one factor deterring companies from locating or expanding in the state. He told The Commercial Dispatch last month that companies look not only at workers available now, but also what a local workforce might look like in 20 or 30 years. He said the departure of young, college-educated people is worsening the state’s outlook and contributing to population loss.

“We’re the only sunshine state losing population, and that should tell you something,” said Higgins, who has won national acclaim for helping to bring multiple large industries to the region around Columbus.

For Boyce, one suggestion is for the state to try to match educational and workforce opportunities. He thinks biomedical engineering might be one such opportunity. Three of Mississippi’s eight public universities now have such programs, and he suggests the state could try to build an industry around that labor force.

“It could be amazing what could happen,” Boyce said.

A needed boost

Beyond that, Boyce continues to tout the state’s Complete 2 Compete program, which aims to help people with some college credit obtain a two-year or four-year degree. Under the program, people express interest in finishing a degree through a website; a community college or university evaluates how many credits the former student has; and either awards a degree or offers them a chance to enroll for more work. Boyce said the program is designed to get at a problem where people start college, but drop out after a year or two.

“The issue is, they don’t finish. It’s a completion issue. And that’s an enormous issue, because they accumulate huge amounts of debt along the way. And they can’t pay that back because they don’t have the credential to get the job they need.”

Boyce said innovative ways to get more Mississippians to earn a degree are necessary, because that’s the only way that the state can “exponentially jump up the ladder” of attainment compared to other states.

“You can’t grind your way up the list, because everybody else is doing it,” he said.

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