ADA, Okla. — As the president of East Central University, Dr. Katricia Pierson encourages students who had not previously considered going to college to give it serious thought.
Pierson said she grew up in poverty, and she was receiving public assistance and raising two children as a single parent by the time she was 21. A friend convinced Pierson that she was smart enough to attend college and suggested enrolling at the University of Oklahoma.
Pierson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate. And her experience taught her the importance of a college education.
“It’s become my mission to assure students who never thought about college or university as a reality that it is a reality,” Pierson said. “Because it lifted me out of poverty. It lifted my children out of poverty. They have great jobs now. They own their own homes.
“It lifted my mother and my parents out of poverty, because they went. My mom became an RN. That’s what an education can do.”
Pierson shared her experience during the Ada Area Chamber of Commerce’s State of Education luncheon, which took place Wednesday at the Chickasaw Business and Conference Center at ECU. The Chamber sponsored the event to educate people about the issues facing local schools, including ECU and the Pontotoc Technology Center.
After telling her story, Pierson talked about ECU and the challenges facing the university.
She said summer enrollment went up by nearly 1% this year, marking the first increase in seven years, and fall enrollment is also on the rise.
“It means a lot to the health of the institution to have strong enrollment,” Pierson said. “It means a lot to the community,”
Pierson said ECU was recently ranked as the nation’s eighth-most affordable university among midsize to large schools, and nearly half of ECU’s undergraduates finish school without incurring student debt.
ECU has an annual budget of about $40.4 million, which includes about $13.6 million in state aid, Pierson said.
“We’ve taken a significant cut since 2016,” Pierson said. “Most of that cut came in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18. This year, we did get a little bit of money — we got $299,000 to cover some faculty salaries, to help boost those salaries to keep them here.”
She said one of ECU’s biggest challenges is finding ways to remain affordable in an era when state aid to higher education has been reduced. She urged the audience to think about ways to hold down college tuition rates and preserve state aid to colleges and universities.
The audience also heard from Pontotoc Technology Center Superintendent David Lassiter, who provided an overview of the Tech Center’s programs.
Lassiter said the Tech Center is an extension of the school districts in Pontotoc County, as well as Tupelo and Sasakwa. Juniors and seniors from nine partner schools may take classes at the Tech Center,
“All of those juniors and seniors can come, tuition free, for two years,” he said. “And we also have a program where if they want to continue after graduation, if they hit some benchmarks then they can continue on, tuition free, as well.”
The Tech Center offers a variety of courses for high school students seeking career and technical training, as well as two programs — nursing and the fire academy — for adults only. A biotechnology program, which began seven years ago, is reserved for high school students.
The Tech Center’s business and industry services department, which offers customized training for local businesses, served 135 local companies with 562 classes in 2018-19, Lassiter said. He said 5,450 people enrolled in those classes.
“That touches a lot of people, because that’s you guys,” he said. “It’s people in our community that come out there and take classes.”
Lassiter said the Tech Center has an annual budget of about $5 million, built on a mix of local funding, state aid and federal dollars. He added that funding for the Tech Center has been reduced in recent years, but that is changing as the state’s finances improve.
“It looks like the economy’s picking up. Things are going good,” Lassiter said. “The Legislature thinks that education is a good investment, and we appreciate that.”
Swanson writes for The Ada News, a CNHI News Service publication.