Meridian Star

November 5, 2012

Staying out is even worse than dropping out

By Scott Elliott / President, Meridian Community College
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     No one ever accused me of being a visionary. I am more of a nuts-and-bolts guy who believes you need to invest your energies in striving for a better tomorrow, while also addressing the challenges of today.

    As a case in point, I recently read a series of newspaper articles devoted to the issue of high school dropouts in Mississippi. While I commend a serious examination of that ultra-disturbing trend, I would also argue that there’s another side to the equation that should demand equal attention – that is, what the community college system has characterized as “Dropout Recovery.”

    To be certain, Mississippi’s high school dropout rate is glaring at 17 percent, according to the aforementioned articles. That means about 14,000 students are exiting their high school experience each year minus a diploma. And in a perfect world, yes, it would be wonderful to solely consider cause, rather than effect. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and this dilemma will not be remedied overnight no matter what innovative programs the State might enact.

    Also, the dropout crisis, in my view, doesn’t originate in our schools; rather, it manifests as a consequence of the depreciation of the American family unit.  And that issue is far more societal than curricular – something that the church might be much better equipped to resolve than the State.

    All that said, I would strongly advocate for the K-12 system to think-tank dropout prevention, while the state invests – at least for a while – in helping to transform those who have already fallen by the wayside into individuals with viable job skills who can be positive contributors in our society. That’s what the community college system’s Dropout Recovery program seeks to accomplish.

    To date, the Mississippi Legislature has shown some interest in the program, providing each of the state’s 15 public community colleges with $100,000 per year in support of Dropout Recovery.

    When that money was initially appropriated some three years ago, I remember well the challenge offered up to the community college presidents at the annual Legislative Budget Office (LBO) hearing. In essence, the message from the LBO was, “Take the $100,000 at each college and show us what you can do in terms of increasing your number of GED graduates. If you can show progress on that score, we’ll look at funding the other part of the program.”

    The “other part of the program” involves two elements. One is a fast-track job skills component – like teaching students how to hang sheetrock, lay floor tile, drive a commercial truck, qualify as a Certified Nurse Assistant, etc. The second involves what might be called “wrap-around services” – things like tutorials, child care and/or transportation support, and mentoring programs.

    Since the Legislature began partially funding Dropout Recovery, the community colleges have made significant strides, not only in terms of the number of GED certificates produced, but also in pass rates on the test. Permit me to cite Meridian Community College as a case in point. During the time Dropout Recovery has been partially funded, MCC recorded some years in which the college produced over 300 GEDs. De facto, that would make MCC the second largest high school graduating class in Lauderdale County, only slightly trailing Meridian High School.

    Consider the potential economic impact of a fully-funded Dropout Recovery program in Mississippi. Some studies have indicated that an individual who earns his/her GED will make as much as $600,000 more over the course of a working lifetime than the person who fails to garner either a high school diploma or its equivalent. Strictly on a raw numbers basis in Mississippi, that constitutes a loss of over $8 billion in the careers of those aforementioned 14,000 dropouts.

    Now, let’s be realistic. Can the community colleges “save” all 14,000 dropouts every year? Absolutely not. And no one has proposed that to the Legislature. Rather, the colleges have requested sufficient funding to tackle a cohort of about 3,500 per year.

    The colleges have asked for about $11.4 million to conduct the program (or about the same investment the State would make in each student had they remained in high school). Currently, the colleges receive only about $400 per student in our adult basic education programs. That’s only about 9 percent of the $4,560 provided by the State per K-12 student and simply not enough money to conduct a comprehensive GED and job skills program with adequate “wrap-around” services.

    You know, economic development isn’t really rocket science. It’s all about empowering people with earnings power. When you’ve got a viable job skill, you earn more money. When you earn more money, you pay more personal income and sales taxes. When folks pay more taxes, the state has greater resources to improve such public services as schools, roads, health care and law enforcement.

    So, to reiterate, let’s be proactive about preventing high school dropouts. Let’s, of course, look for innovative ways to reverse the existing trend. In fact, let’s enthusiastically look forward to the day when dropouts become a non-issue, when remedial education in community colleges is no longer needed.

    But in the meantime, let’s not give up on the tens of thousands of our citizens who, for whatever reasons, didn’t make it their first time at bat. As just one consequence, some already contend that Mississippi is moving toward becoming one of the most imprisoned societies per capita on the planet, and that the average inmate in our state has about a 5th grade reading level. The correlation between a lack of educational attainment and criminality is beyond argument.

    Bottom line – there is perhaps something worse than a high school dropout, and that’s the person who not only drops out, but stays out. It’s something for our legislators to ponder as we approach a new session in January.