Dickens named chair of state community college board
NATCHEZ — Natchez-native Pat Dickens has her sights set on improving the quality of higher education for all Mississippi students, and in the process she has become a trailblazer.
This spring Dickens became the first Natchezian and also the first female to be named chairman of the Mississippi Community College Board. The board coordinates Mississippi’s 15 community and junior colleges.
“I was certainly very honored to be elected,” Dickens said. “I think it’s showed that a lot of women can achieve that level, and I hope we have more.”
Now, just a few months into her tenure as chairman, Dickens hopes to continue the success that the board achieved when she was just a board member, while finding new programs to increase student retention and graduation rates.
Dickens said the biggest victory for the board during her previous seven years of service has been working with the Education Achievement Council.
“The council helped us make it easier for community college students to go on with education,” she said.
Dickens said the MCCB worked with the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning and college presidents to form a stronger bond between the groups than ever before. She said that bond allows students to easily transfer credits from school to school to increase retention and graduation rates.
“We met on a regular basis for several years and ironed out a policy of seamless transfer,” Dickens said. “We went in and looked at all aspects of two-year and four-year colleges that needed to be looked at in terms of what we could do to improve student services.”
Dickens said the bond has created the opportunity for students to transfer from a two-year school to a four-year school, and vice versa, without losing credits.
She said she is also proud of the work the board has done with workforce training in her tenure.
“It’s put so many people to work without four and sometimes two-year degrees,” she said. “It’s a short-term, highly-specific training dictated by the needs of the community.”
Dickens said as a Natchez-native she has specific goals set up for Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, and some of the goals have been met.
“We have 15 colleges, but I can’t help (wanting to see improvement) here in town. I’ve seen a lot of new programs going on at Co-Lin,” she said.
Dickens said her biggest goal for Co-Lin is the development of a performing arts center on campus.
“It would be a way for students to go into theater, dancing or music,” she said. “It would be a great thing for them to do, but with the state’s budget that’s probably on the backburner. But I will have that be a dream.”
Dickens said enrollment in the state’s community colleges has increased each year since 2005, her first on the board.
“It’s for a variety of reasons,” she said. “We provide a good education for students, so they don’t have to travel so much, and it’s half the cost of a four-year institution.”
Dickens said Natchez has specifically benefitted from the board’s work.
“We are doing better than other cities and counties through Natchez Inc. and workforce training for those companies.
“There is not a community that doesn’t thrive and prosper when it has a college whether it’s a two- or four-year. I think how lucky we are to have a school tied to the future of our industrial development.”
Dickens said one of her biggest challenges as chairman is dealing with economics and coming up with enough funds for the schools’ budgets and programs.
She said the board is currently working on acquiring more mid-level funding from the state.
“We are actually enrolling more students than five of the four-year institutions,” Dickens said. “But we are no where near on funding. We are growing more and getting less.
“A huge push comes up every year, and I don’t know how they will go about ever achieving it completely. We are way underfunded, and that’s one of the things the board makes a presentation to try to improve what we’re doing with mid-level funding.”
Mid-level funding was passed in 2007 to provide Mississippi’s community colleges with funding that falls halfway between the funds given to K-12 schools and funds given to the state’s four regional universities, Dickens said.
As she looks ahead to her year as chairman, Dickens said she hopes to have an impact on college dropout rates.
“One of the biggest interests I have is a cooperative endeavor with the Higher Education Administration and the Mississippi Department of Education because of dropouts,” she said. “Dropouts in Mississippi affect all of us. When that happens it is a drain on the economy, because dropouts earn 27 percent less and contribute less to the economy.
“We have to go get these people, get them back into programs and go to work.”
Dickens was appointed to the board by former Gov. Haley Barbour in 2005 to fill out an unexpired term.
Barbour reappointed Dickens in 2007. She was named chair of the board in April. Prior to joining the board she was a counselor and educator.