Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries the distressing story that Mississippi’s jobless rate – an official 7.9% in June, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor - is the worst in the nation. The Magnolia State stands atop a “bad” list once again (sigh).
Asked to comment, Gov. Bryant explained that Mississippi’s economy is improving, just not as fast as the rest of the country (or as fast as he would like). Going to the cause of the state’s sluggish progress, the governor got it exactly right – education, or lack thereof, is the key factor hampering improvement. Mississippi suffers from too many dropouts and too much misdirected education. “We haven’t done as good a job as we should training workers for the future,” said Bryant.
While I prefer “education” over “training,” I think the governor is dead on in his assessment. Mississippi will forever bring up the national rear in employment – and likely every other indicator of well-being – until it does a significantly better job educating its citizens. Preparing workers of the future requires excellent education across the educational spectrum – pre-K – 12, community college, baccalaureate and graduate education included.
Lacking universal pre-K, Mississippi can’t at present even boast of a comprehensive system. Too many K-12 systems, further, are on life support (another news item informs that the state may soon take over malfunctioning Greenwood schools), and do a poor job preparing students for advanced education and training. Community colleges and four-year universities continue to struggle with declining state support and rising tuitions that price low-income students out of the educational market.
To get ahead, Mississippi will need to invest seriously in education – most notably in securing and retaining excellent faculty, and in maintaining state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research. It’s not all about money per se; to be sure there are opportunities to streamline and to improve integration across the system spectrum. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can boost the employment prospects of most Mississippians without a major leap in the level of our financial commitment to education.
Each year, the College of Arts and Letters provides instruction to approximately 3,000 majors and delivers a significant portion of the general education courses to all undergraduates at The University of Southern Mississippi. Across the college we enroll students of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of academic preparation. Most of our students are seeking enhanced skills or college degrees that will prepare them for well-paying jobs. Our mission is to prepare these students, not for their first jobs, but for their careers—where success is measured by the ability to think critically as a problem-solver and communicate effectively through written and spoken words. To achieve this, we nurture in them an understanding of lessons of the past, an appreciation for the richness of difference, an awareness of the challenges we face now, and an understanding of the skills they will need to adapt in the future.
We stand at a pivotal moment in the history of the college, as well as the institution and the state as a whole. A growing body of research has documented a national decline in educational attainment at the very time when our economic competitiveness in Mississippi and across the region is increasingly tied to a well-educated citizenry. So, we’ve begun a journey to redefine our roles as agents of transformative learning, with proactive and intentional strategies that encourage students of all backgrounds and all learning styles to be successful in the classroom, and in life. We are transforming our story—a story told in every department, in every school, for every student, regardless of their background or educational goals. That story is one of access, support, guidance, and personal and academic success in which students leave us well-prepared for their futures. The faculty has risen to meet the challenge of a changing student landscape: technology has presented great benefits and unforeseen challenges, and the average student can be both underprepared and cutting-edge. Undergraduate success initiatives, fully underway, provide a level of access and support never before presented in such a consistent, integrative fashion. Undergraduate research is now common among all our disciplines, and faculty mentoring is a fundamental tenet of our way of doing business.
Our focus has moved to better connect courses with educational goals and, therefore, provide a clearer path to completion. We are reaching out to students who stumble well before it is too late, and they fail. And we are adapting to the changing landscape of student readiness without sacrificing standards or rigor.
Take a moment to review the work of our faculty and students here.
Research conducted by sociologists and health economists at the University of Oxford in England confirms in concrete numbers what most of us feel at a gut level – hard economic times are bad for mental health. Unemployment, falling home values, and high levels of debt experienced on a mass scale contributed heavily to driving up rates of psychological depression and “economic suicide” dramatically, especially in countries with limited support resources for those suffering the most.
Study findings indicate that that at least 10,000 more Americans and Europeans killed themselves between 2007 and 2010 – during the worst of the financial crisis and subsequent recession - than in the few years prior. But Western countries did not evenly suffer rates of mental distress and suicide. Sweden and Austria, keeping their relatively strong social welfare supports intact, maintained flat suicide rates during the worst of the recession, while countries taking the austerity path of cutting or sharply restraining social welfare benefits – such as England and the U.S. – experienced significant suicide spikes.
Economic debates over the best approach to recessions aside, the public health case for a compassionate response to economic downturns seems clear. Social welfare supports save lives.
Last month, students received baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral degrees from the College of Nursing. As I watched our students walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, I noticed their excitement and confidence as they transitioned to a new phase in their life. Students were confident because they have the knowledge, competencies, professional values, and role development needed to be successful in their chosen practice of nursing. Excited because they are assuming roles as entry-level nurses, nurse practitioners, nursing faculty, or nurse administrators. I wonder if they realized that in addition to their chosen professional role, they would also be emerging leaders.
The healthcare delivery system is constantly and continuously changing. Along with it, the field of nursing also evolves in such a way that it enables questioning of existing practices, the development of new knowledge and the improvement of delivery of health care services. The opportunity for leadership will exist and Southern Miss students are capable of providing leadership in change. Three of our current DNP students, Arlen Cooper, Sharon Catledge, and Courtney Bennett are examples of emerging leaders. Arlen is a Jonas Scholar and has participated in national health policy activities, Sharon is serving as the President of the Mississippi State Board of Nursing, and Courtney is featured on the American Association of Colleges of Nursing link as an emerging leader (http://www.aacn.nche.edu/students/gnsa/gnsa-bulletin/2014/may).
[Lynn Pye - this one is just for you! :-)]
Nobody – but nobody – is going to argue that America’s kids shouldn’t be following healthy diets, especially in school. Yet, a bill moving along in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives would let school districts off the hook for upgrading to healthier lunches (i.e. fewer calories in sugar, salt and fat, more in fruits and veggies) if they’re losing money in the shift.
The bill’s proponents argue that cash-strapped schools need “flexibility” in the type of lunches they provide, and hence would waive the healthy lunch mandate. Leave aside the hypocrisy of lawmakers who would impose austerity budgets on public programs while shedding crocodile tears over the fiscal challenge of providing good food to poor kids. As Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times put it, the certain result of this bill becoming law will be more junk food – supplied by a rapaciously profit-seeking junk food industry – “flexibly” offered to our nation’s children.
Mandated nutrition standards are the best thing that have happened to childhood nutrition in a long while. We cannot afford to backslide. President Obama should clearly signal that any bill dampening progress in childhood nutrition reaching his desk is dead-on-arrival.