Idea to fund tuition for ‘gap’ students stalls in county

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 19, 2010

NATCHEZ — Support for a plan to send more local students to college has waned in the nine months since a group of community leaders proposed it.

Members of the Miss-Lou Regional Steering Committee initially got excited about a tuition guarantee program last spring, after hearing of the success of such a program in Lee County.

The program would fund two years of tuition at Copiah-Lincoln Community College for high school graduates who qualify for neither federal Pell Grants nor institutional scholarships. The estimated number of students currently at Co-Lin falling in that category is approximately 150, though a tuition guarantee program would likely send the number higher.

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“Basically, (the program) would fill a gap,” Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus said.

Lazarus was among the group of leaders who heard of the program’s success in Tupelo.

“It’s the hard working people that end up having to pay,” Lazarus said.

Lazarus proposed the idea to the county board in the spring, but nothing has been done since.

“I told my board about it and it’s one of those things that just kind of died,” he said.

“That’s what happens, you get started on a project, and you don’t finish it.”

Lazarus said it is still an important issue to him and he is glad the Miss-Lou Regional Steering Committee discussed the idea recently, seeking an update.

“We really do need to get back on this,” Lazarus said.

But other board members aren’t so sure the program will get off the ground anytime soon.

Board President Darryl Grennell said he would support the program, but it would take a majority vote to spring the guaranteed tuition into action, and he is not sure enough support exists among the board to make it a viable program.

Providing education or a skilled workforce in a community can always benefit that community, Grennell said.

“There’s no question (about the economic impact) of having a more skilled and more educated community,” Grennell said.

“Industry and education go hand-in-hand.

“But I’m only one out of five votes on the board,” Grennell said.

District 3 Supervisor Thomas “Boo” Campbell said although he likes the idea of guaranteeing tuition to all residents in the county, now is not the time to pursue the project.

“There is no way I could support that because of the (county’s) financial situation,” Campbell said.

“I’m in favor of people going to school getting an education, but at this particular junction I would vote against it.”

He said residents are forced to fund the public schools through high school, but he questioned if he had the authority to use tax dollars to pay for school for people who are technically adults.

“This is not Boo Campbell’s money, it’s the taxpayers of this county, and I just don’t see this county (affording the project).”

Based on numbers calculated by Co-Lin President Ronnie Nettles several months ago, the cost to cover the education of the 145 students enrolled at the time without other financial aid would be $152,250 per semester. That estimate includes a recent Co-Lin tuition increase.

“District wide, 80 percent of our students are going to have qualifications for scholarships of any kind,” he said. “This includes band, academic and athletic scholarships, along with federal Pell Grants.”

District 2 Supervisor Henry Watts said he would support the program if the county could fund it without a tax increase, and then only under certain conditions.

The conditions he speculated about include the following:

4 Students must live in Adams County and graduate from high school.

4 Students must graduate high school with a certain specified grade point average.

4 Students must attain an associates degree by attending the program for two years and maintain a certain grade point average throughout.

Students who do not earn a degree, must pay back the money, Watts said.

4 The last requirement, which Watts said may be difficult or complicated to require, would ask that the students receiving the county-paid tuition at Co-Lin must work in Adams County for three years in the field in which they studied.

The benefits to the school the students and later the community are undeniable, Nettles said.

“It is likely to provide additional opportunities for students who may not otherwise have any means to pay for school,” he said. “Having more educated people also makes the area more attractive for economic development.”

Nettles also said having more educated residents creates a cycle of success for families, raising the educational bar for each generation.

“Students who have success with a degree program become a model for their children,” he said.

“They are more likely to be involved in their own children’s education, and this will be passed down to their kids.”