Neighbors ‘up north’ take a different approach

Published 10:11 am Tuesday, June 27, 2017

By Charlie Mitchell

The Mississippi Legislature reduced funding for community colleges, causing an upsurge in the cost of attendance. Lawmakers in Tennessee made community colleges tuition-free, likely to cause an upsurge in attendance.

Now that state “up North” isn’t the model for all things bright and wonderful, just as Mississippi isn’t to be pitied for being lost in the wilderness. There are commonalities and there are differences.

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Tennessee has much larger in population, but Memphis, for example, is plagued by crime — perhaps worse than Jackson. Gatlinburg, a major tourism center, was devastated by fire and will be a while recovering, just as Mississippi’s coast was after Katrina. Mississippi ranks first in poverty with about 20 percent of households deemed officially poor, but Tennessee is a mere six notches up the 51-step ladder.

Both states have conservative Republican governors, Bill Haslam in Tennessee and Phil Bryant in Mississippi. Haslam, who made more money in oil than Jed Clampett, is a fellow billionaire to Donald Trump, but doesn’t think much of the president. Bryant, a career public servant, is not wealthy and says Americans have put the right person in the White House.

Both U.S. senators from Tennessee are Republican, as are both from Mississippi. Of the nine people Tennessee sends to the U.S. House, seven are Republicans. That’s similar to Mississippi, where the tally is three out of four. Republicans dominate both chambers of the legislatures of both states.

So what’s the deal? What’s this “free college” thing?

Tennessee lawmakers, as requested by Haslam, committed more funds from state lottery revenue to community colleges to cover all tuition costs not covered by other aid, such as federal Pell Grants. The legislation enhances tuition assistance in Tennessee that started a while ago and was ramped up in 2014. Mississippi also provides tuition assistance to residents, but rather it was reduced this year.

Essentially, the Tennessee legislation allows residents to finish high school and then enroll in coursework preparing them for employment in trades, technical fields, health care jobs and more. It could save students $3,700 per year and, better than that, let them start the work-family segment of their lives debt-free.

In Mississippi, the news was the opposite. The 15 public community colleges, many of which are top-rated nationally, started planning for the fall term by ending programs, canceling classes, laying off faculty and staff and increasing tuition by an average of 13 percent. Reports are that the largest system, Hinds, has been given “warning” status by its accrediting body due to uncertain financial resources that place the effectiveness of programs in question.

Please don’t think the Tennessee lottery is the key difference. Gov. Bryant thinks a lottery an idea with exploring, perhaps due to the fact that Tennessee harvests about $400 million per year from scratch-offs and numbers games. But remember Tennessee doesn’t have casinos. Mississippi does, and casinos still pump in more than $250 million per year (from a high of well over $300 million annually) to a state with a much smaller population.

Gov. Haslam set a target. In expanding “Tennessee Promise,” he said the percentage of the state’s residents with college degrees should rise from 39 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

If it does, that will move Tennessee, now 42nd, up significantly among states in terms of residents with college degrees. That will look good for prospective employers.

Mississippi is 49th in that ranking, with little prospect of change. That won’t look so good to prospective employers.

Again, nothing here says Tennessee is the promised land. It will become the first state in the union to expand tuition-free public education to 14 years, but residents of the Volunteer State aren’t smarter, more motivated or in any way superior to those of us who live in the Magnolia State. It’s not like they’re some leftwing outpost where people are in the streets shouting, “Freebies for everybody.”

Tennessee has faced the same challenges as Mississippi — rising unemployment and declining demand for traditional jobs.

The difference is that while Mississippi has cut back and cut back, Tennessee has “repurposed” funds with an eye to the future.

One more statistic: Mississippi median family income was $40,593 in 2015 and declining, according to at least one index. The same figure was $47,275 for Tennessee — and rising at almost double the national rate.

So, what’s your prediction? Will that gap narrow, or will it become even wider?

States make choices; people live with the consequences.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at