For years, nearly a dozen state government agencies have sent data about the state’s citizens to a research center at Mississippi State University, purportedly to help policymakers make better decisions.
That database, by design, can crank out layered analyses. There are the basics, like drop-out or graduation rates by county. Then there are more complex, like that just under 15% of Mississippi high schoolers who get career-driven technical training wind up staying on that path by attending a public four-year university.
But the Statewide Longitudinal Data System’s reports and statistics haven’t always been what’s put it in the spotlight. The database’s recent history is messy, marred by years of infrequent board meetings, a former director who used the phrase “alternative data” to describe his work, and bylaws that largely kept the tax-funded database’s analyses from reporters and the public.
Now the database’s leadership says it’s a new era for the system, which is often called its acronym: SLDS. After two years without any meaningful updates, the SLDS has a fresh line of funding and is under a new set of rules that calls for more access to datasets.
The stakes are high: The system’s success, support, and credibility are crucial if Mississippi and its new workforce development office plan to follow through with promises to close workforce and labor training shortfalls. Without reliable data to help identify gaps in the workforce, it would be all the more difficult for lawmakers and newly founded Accelerate Mississippi to close them.
“We were not really using it for what its intended purpose is,” said the system’s board chair, Patrick Sullivan. “It’s an analytical tool for policymakers to make decisions, to look at what we should be doing more of to get people into higher paying jobs.”
The database was at an awkward standstill for the last two years, despite over a decade in investments that includes about $20 million in federal grants. State legislatures declined to fund the database again until last session, when it allocated $1.4 million to the system that’s housed and run from the Mississippi State University campus. That new budget began July 1.
The return of state funds is “going to breathe life back into” the database, said Steven Grice, the executive director of the Mississippi State center contracted to manage the system.
Rep. Donnie Bell was one of the legislators who pushed to give the system state funds again. Bell, the chair of the workforce development committee, is the one who requested the data that showed how few students in high school technical programs wind up pursuing a four-year degree.
The point of those programs, Sullivan said, is to keep students on high-value paths all the way to a good job. Based on the data, that’s not happening in high numbers. Bell found what he learned about the high school programs through the database invaluable.
“We need to find a permanent funding source,” Bell said of the system. “This is something that is crucial for Mississippians and the growth of Mississippi.”
Information enters the system from 11 state agencies, such as the unemployment office and the Department of Education. It is operated out of Mississippi State University’s National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center. The state treats the university center as a third-party vendor under a new five-year contract.
“For a couple years there was, really, essentially nothing that could be done for the system,” Grice said. “So we’re going to be getting all of the data caught up.”
When an individual’s data is pushed into the system, their identity is replaced with a 10-digit number that is linked across state agencies. That way, the system can cross-reference the data to track people, or their participation in state programs, over time. The data could include where they attended college, whether they got unemployment benefits, their income, and more.
“With the state opening this Office of Workforce Development, where you have people whose day job is to think about how to develop a workforce, they have this great mature data system at their disposal,” Grice said. “You can start to ask questions that really unlock the potential for economic development that the system has.”
It’s data that can better inform the state on the specifics of the brain drain crisis. The brain drain — which is used to describe waves of young, educated Mississippians leaving the state — was something Grice’s predecessor argued was a false narrative.
Mississippi State’s analysis research center was founded in 2005 by Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi, a sociology professor and data scientist. At that time, he started putting together the state’s first longitudinal data system.
The federal government encouraged states to create the systems as means to determine the effectiveness of state services and programs. But by the following decade, Parisi’s messaging around the system’s purpose seemed at odds with its founding.
In a 2019 Mississippi Today investigation about Parisi and the research center, the professor said his goal was to use “alternative data” to write reports that made Mississippi “look bigger and better” than national statistics and rankings had. Parisi’s actions were more akin to a state pitchman and power broker than unbiased scientist. Critics said the center was operating more as a think tank than a university research center.
Since funding was first cut that year in session, the system had largely been off most lawmaker’s radars.
Sullivan said he could not point to any one reason state funding was cut to the system, but that it was likely a “series of things” that “hurt the credibility of the data.”
Parisi, who worked closely with former Gov. Phil Bryant, no longer heads the center but now is MSU’s senior advisor for European development. Grice, who was the deputy executive director for the research center, took over officially as its director in March of this year.
Grice has a decidedly different approach to the data and the center’s role, one that doesn’t include being a storyteller for the state. His researchers provide the data and outcomes, he said. But how those results are interpreted is up to whatever lawmaker or entity that requested a report.
“I definitely don’t see making conclusions on the data as our job relative to the SLDS,” Grice said. “We try to approach it the way you should approach good science. You have got to park all your preconceived notions.”
As the contracted operator of the system, the university center or Grice do not sit on the database’s governing board.
Mississippi has called the database “Lifetracks,” but Sullivan said that name is likely to change as the board reintroduces the system. Lifetracks’ website is dated and difficult to navigate. It gives users limited access to reports and datasets related to graduates’ participation in the workforce.
Sullivan, the president of the Mississippi Energy Institute, became the chair of the board in 2020 and brought with him a clear vision for how the database needed to operate to be useful. Chief among them, that reports should be easier to access and request.
With Sullivan at the helm, the board that guides the system has had regular meetings. In May 2019, the database had its first meeting in more than two years. That same year, Mississippi Today requested datasets to see outcomes of anti-poverty programs but was told news organizations could not access the info.
The board this year approved new bylaws that will make it easier for the public and reporters to request data once the system’s new website goes live.
“In my opinion anyone should have access to it,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan envisions a website that has less complex data easily available, such as graduation rates by county. If a lawmaker, nonprofit or citizen wanted something that layered data, like examining the outcomes of a specific program, they’d need to put in a request.
The research center employees who handle the system would then respond with a time and cost estimate. Sullivan wants the turnaround to be quick. He also plans for completed reports to then be posted to the website to be viewed or downloaded.
“Most people aren’t aware of it,” said Bell, the House member who used the system to look at the success of technical training in high schools. “It can provide so much detailed information that can help us make decisions in the Legislature.”
Within the first few weeks on the job as the head of the new workforce development office, Ryan Miller, was putting in requests to Grice’s team to get a clearer grasp on Mississippians’ pathways to in-demand careers, or the lack of those pathways.
While the data may not always be perfect, it gives those leading the state’s workforce development a starting point to set targets.
“It’s helping us better understand the data we have access to and what the in-demand professions are that have the highest pay,” Miller said. “We need that data to know what the real picture is.”