A New Push to Get Community College Students in Mississippi Across the Finish Line


There are 15 community colleges in the state of Mississippi that serve over 75,000 students, and each of them has serious challenges with student retention and completion. This is a problem in many higher ed institutions around the nation, with first-generation and minority students least likely to finish their degrees. The challenge in Mississippi has been compounded by reduced state funding for the community college system.  

Some funders are paying attention. The foundation that most recently stepped in to invest in Mississippi college students is the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, whose president, Jim McHale, previously worked the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (a major funder in Mississippi). WHEF announced a $900,000 grant to provide four years of capacity-building support to two community colleges in Mississippi with an eye on helping more students get across the finish line. This grant is a partnership between WHEF and Achieving the Dream, an organization focused on helping community college students succeed.

One of the grant recipients is Coahoma Community College, which is the first all-black community (junior) college in Mississippi. The other school is Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and in addition to funds, both schools will receive onsite coaching visits, information on best practices from peer colleges, and additional resources to help them improve the rates of completion for certificates and degrees.

As we often report, many funders are interested in college completion right now. After decades of working to expand access to higher education for disadvantaged students, philanthropy has increasingly pivoted to the challenge of helping students succeed once they're enrolled. A combination of financial and social challenges can trip up young people who are the first in their families to attend college. But in recent years, partly thanks to sustained attention from grantmakers, a range of strategies has emerged for helping students navigate their way to a degree and career. 

The dividends from college completion can be enormous. As WHEF’s president, Jim McHale, said, "We know that without a postsecondary degree, nearly half of the poorest children in Mississippi will remain in poverty. The good news is that this figure decreases dramatically—to 10 percent—with a postsecondary education. Our board recognizes that a college degree is a game-changer."

Achieving the Dream’s president and CEO, Karen A. Stout, pointed out that community colleges are institutions that level the playing field for students of color and from low-income backgrounds. The organization works with more than 200 community colleges in 39 states and the District of Columbia to reach over four million community college students.

Even as more politicians and business leaders have touted the importance of community colleges, these school have been hit with funding cuts as part of a broader public disinvestment in higher education at the state level. Meanwhile, much of the private giving for higher education goes to elite research institutions. In fact, a recent study of campus donations found that the top 20 schools—places like Harvard, Stanford and Yale—raised 28.1 percent of all gifts in 2017.

Still, some funders have zeroed in on community colleges, guided by the belief that economic and social mobility starts with education and that these schools offer an accessible escalator to greater opportunities. But funders are also aware that the challenges of completion can be greatest for community college students, who often have jobs and family care obligations, even as they work to obtain their degrees. Achieving the Dream was first conceived by the Lumina Foundation, working with the American Association of Community Colleges, MDC, Inc., and other partnerships. In 2008, the Gates Foundation made a $16.7 million grant to develop the organization. The Kellogg Foundation is another important funder.  

Local initiatives are key to how Achieving the Dream operates. As a result of WHEF's grants, Coahoma Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College have now joined its national network, which will meet in June to kick off the four-year plan for coaching, learning, and analyzing data sources to get a better understanding of the community college student experience. A big part of this effort is community college capacity-building, beginning with self-assessment to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Institutional capacities will be reviewed in regards to vision, leadership, teaching, learning, data, and technology.

WHEF’s top mission is helping Mississippians obtain post-secondary certifications, credentials, and degrees, and grantmaking is very focused on college access and completion.