The state’s chamber of commerce and workforce development office are working together on an ambitious goal: Get more than half of Mississippi’s workforce college-educated by 2030.

The Mississippi Economic Council and Accelerate Mississippi are conducting a statewide listening tour, part of the state’s “Ascent to 55%” initiative, to create a strategic plan to increase the number of college graduates among working-aged Mississippians, considered anyone between 25-64 years old.

Mississippi already seems to be on track to achieve this goal – by 2030, an estimated 59% of the state’s workforce will have a college degree or equivalent certificate, according to a paper commissioned by the Woodward Hines Education Foundation. 

The strategic plan will aim to guide policy and marketing so that Missisippians are getting college degrees that meet the varying needs of employers like Nissan in central Mississippi, Ingalls Shipbuilding to the south and Toyota to the north.

The tour began earlier this week and will continue into December. It is being spearheaded by Jean Massey, a former associate state superintendent who MEC hired with grant funds from the Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF).

Massey’s first stop was at Copiah-Lincoln Community College on Tuesday. She said she wants to learn about the needs of business – what degrees do they want the local workforce to have? – and to generate buy-in from public and private leaders needed to achieve the state’s wide-ranging goal. 

“We want to hear from the business industry what they need, we want to hear from workforce workers, we also want to hear from the educators in the region to hear what they’re offering and aligns with what’s needed, and we also want to hear from the leaders in the community, government officials,” she said. 

Mississippians have long pursued higher education at some of the lowest rates in the country, a fact state leaders have talked about improving for years with little success. 

The initiative comes as Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Monday the largest economic development project in state history. It also takes on new urgency as the pandemic has contributed to a decline in the number of Mississippians going to college, said Courtney Brown, the vice president of impact and planning at the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for postsecondary attainment.

“If at any point the data were really right in front of our face about the importance of having more education, the pandemic really shows that,” Brown said. “It really showed the inequities in our society between the haves and the have-nots, and we really have to change that.” 

But if Mississippi does increase the number of college degrees in the state, the theory is that it will kick off a positive feedback loop of economic development, leading to bigger business and higher paying jobs. 

“If we raise our attainment level, our workforce becomes more valuable, industry wants to be here, and we can attract more people,” Massey said. 

The goal of increasing college degrees or credentials in Mississippi goes back to 2010 under Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration, when the Legislature created the Education Achievement Council (EAC) to measure the progress made by community colleges and universities in terms of degrees awarded, graduation rates and research dollars. 

That same year, the EACset a postsecondary attainment goal of reaching the national average by 2025. In 2019, Mississippi’s educational attainment rate was 44% – the fourth lowest in the nation, according to Lumina – putting it on track to miss its original goal of 52%.

Two years ago, the EAC revised its attainment goal by committing to the Ascent to 55% initiative. Then WHEF – which is funding the listening tour with a four-year, $1 million grant – put out a request for proposal which it granted to MEC. 

MEC’s strategic plan would mark the first time that Mississippi has created a plan to increase the state’s number of college degrees and certificates, said Jim McHale, the president and CEO of WHEF, which has long advocated for a strong attainment goal. 

“Ascent to 55% is our north star, and everything needs to lead up to that,” McHale said. 

The strategic plan, though, is only for MEC, and it’s unclear if or how it will call on state lawmakers to pass legislation to support educational attainment. Their participation would be needed to achieve such a wide-ranging goal, according to higher education experts. 

“You need everybody at the table,” said Brown from Lumina. “Higher ed can’t solve this alone.” 

A state’s postsecondary education attainment is a reflection of a number of non-education policies, namely social services, said Iris Palmer, an education policy director at New America. Relying on higher education as a pathway to the middle class, Palmer said, isn’t a substitute for social welfare programs.

“If (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) actually worked, if all the states expanded Medicaid, if we had a world where there was enough cash assistance for people to be able to live while they’re in school, we wouldn’t have to be pathworking these things through our educational system,” Palmer said.

In Mississippi, the lack of social services is accompanied by few state resources for adult and low-income college students. The rules for Mississippi’s three college financial aid programs by and large exclude adults. Students from low-income families are less likely to complete college than students from wealthier families. As race tracks highly with income in Mississippi, Black students are much less likely to complete college than white students, even though they start college at the same rate. 

While the EAC has committed to this goal, state lawmakers are pursuing policies that either impede educational attainment or hamper the economic benefits

On brightly-colored fliers, MEC and Accelerate Mississippi have touted the benefits of more Mississippians going to college – not just to businesses and the economy, but to the state government’s bottom line. 

“Every increased percentage point to Mississippi’s attainment rate has the potential to net the state $20 million through reduced social service spending and increased state and local taxes,” one handout says.

The source for that data point, a 2021 paper by research firm ITHAKA-S+R, strikes a slightly different tone. Titled “It’s Complicated: The Relationship between Postsecondary Attainment and State Finances,” the report posited that increased educational attainment would help states spend less money on Medicaid and welfare – as college graduates typically need less social services – and generate more revenue in the form of increased property and income taxes. 

Mississippi, the report found, would see some of the smallest savings in the country on welfare with increased educational attainment. Eliminating the state income tax – which Reeves pledged to do at this year’s Hobnob, where MEC distributed these fliers – would also significantly reduce the potential savings. 

“The revenue coming from income tax is quite significant and definitely the majority of the tax revenue that the state is deriving,” James Ward, who co-authored the paper, told Mississippi Today. “To eliminate that would definitely take a big hit in terms of the potential benefits of increasing attainment because attainment is linked to those higher salaries where you’re getting that additional income tax.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers haven’t expressed interest in policies that research has shown will support more postsecondary attainment, such as increasing need-based financial aid and expanding college financial aid to adult learners. 

Massey anticipates the strategic plan will be finished before the middle of next year and is still sorting out what metrics the plan should measure. She hopes to build a database the public can use to track the state’s progress.

“I think the key is that we all work together, and we understand this is not going to happen overnight, but it’s absolutely vital that we do increase our attainment rate,” she said. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Editor’s note: Woodward Hines Education Foundation is a financial supporter of Mississippi Today.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.