TUPELO – On Thursday Jim McHale set out to inspire Northeast Mississippi’s leaders to take action to help the region’s impoverished and undereducated youth at CREATE’s annual State of the Region.

“You don’t have to be a high school guidance counselor to help a kid get to college. You’re in this room because you’re a leader and you’re in a position to make a difference,” McHale said. “College education is a game changer. It ends generational poverty, it changes the futures of families and it can change the face of your community and your state.”

As president of the Woodward Hines Education foundation, McHale leads an organization that is dedicated to helping more Mississippians obtain postsecondary credentials, certifications and degrees.

McHale, a Michigan native but longtime Mississippi resident, explained why the entire 17-county region needs to increase access to advanced degrees. A study by Georgetown University predicts that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require some kind of secondary education.

Currently, 46.9 percent of working-age adults across the country have a postsecondary degree. That number drops to 37.5 percent in Mississippi. In Northeast Mississippi, that number drops even further to 31 percent.

In a packet distributed at the meeting, the CREATE Foundation showed the progress that has been made in Northeast Mississippi in educational attainment.

In 2000, 38 percent of adults 25 years and older experienced college or higher, 30.8 percent completed high school only and 31.2 percent dropped out. In 2016, college experience and high school graduates increased to 49.9 percent and 31.3 percent respectively, while dropouts decreased to 18.8 percent.

“In Mississippi we have a history of importing talent,” McHale said. ”The people who grow up here are not part of the productivity of our state. We need to equip the people of Mississippi to be part of the productivity of Mississippi.”

The most obvious barrier to higher education is cost. McHale noted that tuition and board at both the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State is around $24,000 per year. Scholarships do exist, but spreading the word is a challenge.

Higher Education Legislative Plan grants offer four years of in-state college tuition to high school students with a grade point average of at least 2.5, an ACT score of at least 20 and a household income less than 39,500.

The median household income in Mississippi is 37,750, but while around 5,500 qualify for HELP grants each year, only about 2,900 apply. As further barriers to finding and applying for scholarships, McHale noted that the guidance counselor to high school student ratio is 440 to one, and 61 percent of households in Mississippi have broadband internet.

“First generation college students don’t have support systems with college experience,” McHale said. “They haven’t researched scholarships or been on campus tours because nobody in their family has that experience.”

McHale made it clear that the region’s leaders can help students achieve advanced degrees without writing checks with multiple zeros. Phi Theta Kappa is the honor society for community college students. The average member receives $2,500 in scholarships.

The catch, it costs $65 to be a member, which is more than a day’s pay for a minimum-wage worker.

In conclusion, McHale asked the audience to set an education attainment goal for the region. Mississippi is not one of the 41 states to establish such a goal with a timeline and strategic plan to increase the quality of education.

“You all can set the bar and be role model for state of Mississippi,” McHale said. ”Be somebody who changes the odds for all of Mississippians.”

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