Other communities see success with tuition program

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 19, 2010

NATCHEZ — Persistence and cooperation are two of the main ingredients needed to begin a tuition guarantee program for high school students, said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of CREATE Foundation in Tupelo.

CREATE, a community foundation in northeast Mississippi, has implemented tuition guarantee programs in the vast majority of the communities with which it works beginning in 2008.

But Whitfield said the idea for such program began many years before that. In 1995, the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, a component of CREATE, identified a $10,000 gap in the per capita income of Mississippians when compared to the national average. The commission realized half of the difference was a result of lack of education for Mississippians.

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“If we had the same percentage of high school graduates, community college graduates and four-year college graduates as the national average, then $5,000 of that difference would disappear,” Whitfield said. “We could increase our per capita income by increasing the educational level of our people.”

To do that, the commission began exploring ways to guarantee all high school graduates would have the opportunity to attend two years at a community college, but, at that time, the attempts to implement such a program were unsuccessful.

But the idea didn’t go away, Whitfield said. Several years later Tupelo businessman and commission member Jack Reed made a speech in Meridian and mentioned the tuition guarantee program idea.

Representatives from Meridian Community College were in the audience and took that idea and created a program for high school graduates in Meridian and Lauderdale County.

Once that program was operational, representatives from CREATE studied it. At Meridian Community College 47 percent of all high school graduates applied for the program and 45 percent of those ended up needing assistance.

Whitfield said representatives from CREATE calculated the equivalent numbers for the 16 counties served by CREATE. The number was staggering, he said.

“We came back and looked at the number of graduates in our counties and realized we thought we need $1.246 million to cover all 16 counties,” he said. “That would take a $27-million endowment fund that we just didn’t have.”

So once again the idea was stalled, but not stopped.

Members of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi continued to discuss ways to bring the idea into reality.

That’s when other community foundations and groups in the area began to step up. In 2008 the Gilmore Foundation in Monroe County committed to fund the program for Monroe County graduates and the Pierce Foundation in Corinth jumped on board to fund the program in their area.

“Suddenly four or five of our 31 districts were covered, and that created some momentum,” Whitfield said.

Soon after that other organizations began contributing ideas and money to fund the program in surrounding counties, Whitfield said.

In Lee County, David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation suggested CREATE put up $150,000 each year and have the Lee County Board of Supervisors match that contribution. The idea was successful and graduates from the four high schools in the county were eligible for tuition guarantee to a local community college.

Three Rivers Planning and Development District helped get the program running in eight more counties. That organization agreed to contribute $25,000 for each county for 10 years in exchange for a dedicated millage from each county that surpassed the $25,000 contribution from TRPDD, Whitfield said.

“All of a sudden, with everyone’s help, we had a lot more people covered,” Whitfield said.

In the fall semester of 2010, 29 of 31 school districts and 15 of the 16 counties served by CREATE had access to a tuition guarantee program.

And the program was much less expensive to operate than originally though, Whitfield said.

In fall 2010 2,393 students applied for the program, but only 491 ended up needing assistance. The total amount dispersed was $270,488, an average of $551 per student.

Students applying for the program are required to apply for Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant and apply for federal funding through FASFA. The students are also encouraged and helped to apply for private and school scholarships.

“What we cover is tuition for four semesters and the initial fee,” Whitfield said. “We take the total tuition and apply federal aid, private aid and scholarships and cover what is left.”

The dollar amount has been kept down because many of the students who apply qualify for school scholarships or federal aid, which has been expanded in recent years. Whitfield said it is now easier for students to qualify for a Pell Grant to cover school expenses than it was previously.

Students can attend four community colleges in north Mississippi, depending on the traditional community college districts. The schools bill the appropriate agencies for the tuition guarantee program after each semester begins.

To apply for the program, students only have to sign a form indicating they are interested in the program. But once they qualify, students must maintain full-time enrollment, 12 course hours, have a C average and stay enrolled in school for four consecutive semesters. If a student fails to meet those criteria, they are not eligible to reapply for the program again.

“What this says to students and parents is that as a community we don’t believe 12 years of school is enough,” Whitfield said. “In a more technological environment where higher training and skills are necessary, we are saying 14 years of school is a minimum.”

And its not just the message of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi or CREATE Foundation, Whitfield said. County and city governments, businesses and private individuals are involved in he success of the program and, by extension, the success of the area’s youth.

Whitfield said what was key in implementing the programs in Northeast Mississippi was the different entities involved. He said every area operates a little differently, but as long as the goal is providing education for the graduates, the method doesn’t matter.

“A lot of how the program is implemented depends on the county involved and how many children will be helped,” he said. “You could figure out how much money would be required and do it through private commitments or perhaps go to the counties and cities.

“Each area just has to figure out what works for that area.”