January 29, 2020 10:33:21 AM
For the past few years, the Legislature and the governor's office have hammered away at a consistent message about education: College isn't for everyone.
Among the well-intentioned, it's an effort to call to the attention of young people the emerging opportunities in skilled labor as factories and industries struggle to find employees equipped for the demands of the modern workplace. There is also a shortage of those trained in the traditional trades - construction, plumbing, electricians, et al.
The message is sound, although how it is framed is following a troubling trend.
During his first State of the State address Monday, Gov. Tate Reeves employed a view that is insulting, demagogic and, we believe, counter-productive.
In his wide-ranging, 35-minute address, Reeves touted the state's investment in workforce training, the catch-all phrase for career tracks that do not require 4-year college degrees.
If he had stopped there, it would have been a positive message for our state.
Instead, Reeves went a bridge too far, mocking university education.
"In Mississippi, we know there is pride in a trade," he said. "We know there is money to be made. We can let the east coast have their ivory towers. We can let the west coast have a generation of gender studies majors. We will take more jobs and higher pay!"
In using the sort of divisive rhetoric that is usually abandoned after the election campaign, Reeves is pitting one career track against another. The sort of language does not auger well for higher education, which has been chronically underfunded for years. As a result, more and more of the cost has been passed on to students and their parents.
"College isn't for everyone" is a message apparently already being embraced. Over the past three years, four-year college enrollment has dropped by 5.7 percent. In the fall of 2019, there were 4,758 fewer students enrolled in our state's eight public universities than there were in 2016.
Since 2012, the state has lost roughly 35,000 residents. It's unlikely they left for pipe-fitting, plumbing and construction opportunities.
In short, fewer Mississippians are going to college and those who do are often leaving our state for the opportunities their education has prepared them for. How does our state possibly benefit from that?
Dismissing a college education as an "ivory tower" pursuit or mocking liberal arts programs such as gender studies -- in a state where 25 percent of women live in poverty, that's a topic worthy of study -- does not do a single thing to promote the workforce career path. Can the workforce path not stand on its own merits?
Mississippi State and Ole Miss have gender studies programs and while neither university has come to the defense of these programs, Mississippi University for Women President Nora Miller offered an unapologetic defense of The W's women's studies program,
"Gender studies and other areas of study that aim to build a more diverse and inclusive society benefit all of us," Miller said. "These programs provide in-depth knowledge of gender dynamics, strategies and organizational skills needed to address gender inequalities, promoting skills which are needed (in a variety of fields.)"
Here's the truth: What may be said of the college career path is also true of the workforce career path: It's not for everyone, either.
Depending on the job, skilled labor sometimes means working in harsh conditions performing monotonous and sometimes potentially dangerous work. Older workers, especially in traditional trades, may find the work too physically demanding to sustain into their 50s and 60s.
We do not believe that promoting either career path relies on denigrating the other.
Both are good choices. For some workforce training is a better path. For others, a university degree is the best path forward.
It is unfortunate that our Governor has chosen to drive a wedge between these two legitimate career paths.
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