Community college enrollment increases in poor economy

By Jon Kalahar - email

JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - Mississippi's fifteen community and junior colleges are experiencing record growth. And believe it or not, that spike in enrollment is due, at least in part, to the poor economy and recession.

That's why college officials say it's more important than ever for lawmakers to fund their schools.

"We are the closest thing the state of Mississippi has to a silver bullet to propel our economy into the 21st century," said Eric Clark, Executive Director of the state Board of Community & Junior Colleges. "We don't have the option anymore of our people working an unskilled job to provide for their family."

And while thousands of Mississippians have lost their jobs, many are turning to the state's two year colleges for help. This semester enrollment has increased by more than ten percent statewide, a growth of 25,000 students. Students like former factory worker Gregory Windom.

"It's to better myself for a better job, but also make it feasible for me and my family to have a better living in life, other than working in factories," said Windom.

Other non-traditional students are looking at recession proof occupations like nursing and teaching as their way up the ladder.

"I'm enjoying school very much, it's like a dream come true," said Co-Lin Community College student Gwendolen Pierce.

Without full funding, officials say they might have to limit enrollment or increase tuition. They say that's the last step they want to take because the impact on their students' lives is so great.

The opportunity for higher education has empowered Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College student Stephanie Maxwell to become a teacher.

"I deserve it. I deserve it. That's just how I feel. I deserve it," the mother of two said.

Statewide, community colleges say they need more than $100 million in capital improvements alone. The state legislature is waiting to see how the federal stimulus might help fund education.