STARKVILLE — Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said the state’s economic future hinges on making college more affordable.
“In the long term, if core inflation is at 2 or 3 percent, our universities can’t be at 7 percent each year,” Reeves said Tuesday at Mississippi State University. “Tuition is something I’ve talked about for eight years (as state treasurer). No one knows better than I do what increases have meant for the accessibility for many families across our state.”
During his campaign for lieutenant governor, he listed job creation as his top priority. It wasn’t a surprise, given dire economic times in the state and across the country.
Underneath the hot topic of jobs and industry is the linchpin to economic growth: education. Reeves, who easily defeated Reform Party candidate Tracella Lou O’Hara Hill in November, said despite increased enrollment at junior colleges and four-year universities, college-level education isn’t as attainable as it needs to be for Mississippians.
Tuition at four-year universities in the state has increased by 7 percent each year over the past 10 years. Reeves, who has served as chairman of the board of directors for the College Savings Plans of Mississippi, said rates will continue to rise unless colleges reduce costs and lawmakers ensure funding through legislative appropriation. Families will find it increasingly difficult to pay for higher education, even if they lock in current rates through the state’s prepaid tuition plans,
Reeves spoke at the W.H. “Bill” Collins Speaker Series at the John Grisham Room in the Mitchell Memorial Library.
MSU became the first state university to top the 20,000 mark for enrollment this fall. Reeves said the boost in enrollment at MSU and other colleges across the state is influenced by the downturn in the economy. While the spike in enrollment is encouraging, time will tell if it translates into increased graduation rates.
By the numbers
According to Higheredinfo.org, Mississippi ranked 33rd in the country in bachelor’s degree graduation rates at 51.5 percent in 2009, about 4 percent below the national average. Mississippi’s average increased roughly 1 percent from 2006-2009.
A 2009 report by the National Center for Higher Education Management showed the percentage of Mississippians between the ages of 25-64 with a bachelor’s degree or higher stood at 20.2, percent, ranking only ahead of West Virginia’s 19 percent. Massachusetts ranked No. 1 at 41.3 percent.
“We’re making progress,” Reeves said. “I’m not one who believes that a four-year college degree is necessary for every child, especially when you look at some of the skill-based manufacturing jobs that have come here to the Golden Triangle. But we need more college graduates, more high school graduates and more kids to go to junior college and learn a skill so that they can provide for jobs for next 20 years.”
Talking up the talent
Reeves said the easiest way to improve college enrollment and graduation rates is through encouragement. He referenced a recent statement from outgoing Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who said Mississippians often underestimate themselves.
The incoming lieutenant governor pointed to his own background as a rising politician in the Republican Party as proof. Reeves, who at age 29 became state treasurer in 2003, was advised to set his bar lower in his first bid for a political office.
“They said, ‘Maybe you should have started in the House or as a (county) supervisor or as dog catcher of Rankin County,'” he said. “I tell students that story and that in the context of life there’s always going to be naysayers. If you are willing to dream big and develop a plan to accomplish it, and if you’re willing to work hard enough to do it, Mississippi kids can accomplish anything.
“We need more people in leadership positions and government telling kids this.”
Praise for priorities
Amy Tuck, former lieutenant governor and current special assistant to the president at MSU, praised Reeves for setting an example and encouraging the future leaders of the state.
“It’s a tremendous asset to have someone that has education as a priority and a passion,” Tuck said. “He has already exemplified that by his tenure in public service up to this point. Tate has been a tremendous leader and will be for our state.”
Reeves will be sworn into office Jan. 5 and will make legislative committee appointments the day after. Reeves will preside over a state Senate that will include 18 new members.