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Future Shock

Coming of Age in Mississippi

State of Higher Learning
University Business, Oct 2011

For many years, Mississippi ranked near the bottom in higher learning aspiration, academic attainment, and state support—but times have changed. Today, the state's economic and workforce development organizations are teaming up to launch a new collaboration between southern business, industry, and the Mississippi public system of higher education—a dynamic plan aptly named Blueprint Mississippi 2011. And who better to serve as Blueprint's Chair and chief spokesperson than Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education.

Since his appointment as Commissioner, Bounds championed an impressive series of reforms, making courses, programs, and even textbooks more affordable to residents of Mississippi. These reforms have improved student academic success and raised college-bound aspirations, retention, persistence, and graduation rates, and created a seamless public education system—from early childhood through college. Beyond the stimulation of economic and workforce development, transfer articulations and dual enrollment opportunities, the work of Blueprint Mississippi has increased the public higher education system's national rankings and international recognition.

Bounds put it nicely: "Mississippi's eight public universities play a vital role in the state's economy. Collectively, they enroll more than 76,000 students and prepare them to be the workforce leaders for the future. ... Mississippi Public Universities conduct research [which] helps bring new industries, quality jobs and higher wages to Mississippi. Our universities partner with local developers and state agencies to recruit new business, provide highly-skilled employees, and train tomorrow's entrepreneurs and innovators."

The University of Mississippi, affectionately touted "Ole Miss," proudly includes among its more prominent alumni football greats Archie and Eli Manning and Michael Oher (The Blind Side), and Mississippi State University—recently ranked as a Best College Buy in Forbes magazine. That said, there is somewhat less brand awareness of the state's newest rising stars—regional university campuses like Alcorn State University.  

Originally located in Lorman, Mississippi, Alcorn first opened its doors in 1871 following the Civil War—and changed its name to Alcorn A&M in 1878. A historically black, land-grant university, Alcorn adopted its current moniker, Alcorn State University, in 1974 when university status was granted to Mississippi's four-year, state-supported colleges.

True to its agricultural roots, Alcorn hosts the School of Agriculture, Research, Extension and Applied Sciences and the Mississippi Small Farm Development Center. Today, Alcorn also works with local businesses to develop workforce education partnerships that benefit students, industry, and the state. In furthering its role in community and workforce development, Alcorn has partnered with Entergy Corporation to provide students with a hands-on learning experience and mentorship in radiation technologies. Most recently, US News and World Report ranked Alcorn in the top 30 for academic reputation among historically black colleges and universities. Beyond its HBCU ranking, Alcorn has earned its place on the 2011 edition of US News and World Report's "Best Colleges in the South."

Alcorn's newest President, Dr. M. Christopher Brown II, is widely recognized for his pathfinding research and scholarly writing on public policy, leadership, and educational equity. President Brown looks beyond Alcorn's HBCU distinction and agricultural heritage in describing the new Alcorn in his inaugural remarks. "There exists unparalleled propensity [to]… frame a strategic 'pursuit of excellence', and guide our actions toward becoming a premier university," he says.

Commissioner Bounds summed up Mississippi's public higher ed agenda. "If you look at the economic impact of making small moves like increasing graduation rates at high schools by just a few points and increasing the number of students graduating from college by just a few hundred students, we will have billions of dollars of impact on our economy," he says.

In the past decade, higher learning has helping to transform the Magnolia State into an economic and workforce development powerhouse. And with that transformation, Mississippi's public universities are now "coming of age" — preparing the next generation of business and civic leaders in concert with the shared vision of Blueprint Mississippi.