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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Time to address higher education

Thursday, October 21, 2004

We received some good news recently when a college enrollment survey for the fall semester showed a 3.4-percent increase from the fall of 2003 at our public colleges and universities. We need more people attending college in this state, and that has been the trend in recent years.

Some of the enrollment gains were amazing. The University of Central Arkansas at Conway had a 5.9 percent increase and now has more than 10,000 students. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville had a 5.3 percent increase and has more than 17,000 students for the first time. Overall, the combined enrollment at the state's four-year institutions has increased by 12.1 percent since 2000, growing from just more than 69,000 students to almost 78,000 students.

The gains are even more impressive at the 22 public two-year colleges. Since 2000, enrollment at the 22 two-year institutions has increased by 29.7 percent, soaring from fewer than 36,000 students to more than 46,000 students. The overall growth is 4.2 percent since last fall, with 15 of the 22 schools showing larger enrollments.

Now we must ensure not only that students take advantage of the higher education opportunities but that they also obtain degrees. Along with West Virginia, Arkansas brings up the rear when it comes to the percentage of residents with at least a bachelor's degree. We must improve if we're going to compete in the economy of the new century.

We've placed a tremendous focus on improving education in Arkansas from kindergarten through high school. In this economy, though, we need a K-16 approach, not just a K-12 approach. We should see to it that the senior year in high school is no longer a wasted year, that students have the opportunity to earn college credits through advanced placement courses and other methods.

With our students taking more rigorous courses in high school, we can increase college retention and graduation rates. Only 38 percent of first-time, full-time college students complete a bachelor's degree within six years of entering college, making Arkansas one of the lowest-performing states in the country. There are encouraging signs, however. During the past decade, the percentage of first-year community college students returning for their second year has increased by 9 percent. Nationally, there has been a 2 percent decline.

Meanwhile, the proportion of black students receiving certificates relative to the number enrolled has almost doubled, narrowing the gap in performance between blacks and whites. A decade ago, only eight of every 100 minority adults in Arkansas had a bachelor's degree. That number is now up to 17.

In an effort to extend our education reforms to the post-secondary level, I appointed a Blue Ribbon Committee on Higher Education last year. Members of the committee met seven times between December and June. They worked hard to provide us with recommendations for possible legislation in the session that will begin in January.

In its final report, the committee wrote: "The legislative culture of our state historically has encouraged members to champion the cause of the college or university in the local districts. Placing the good of the state ahead of what might be lucrative for the local higher education institution will require exceptional statesmanship."

When I address the Legislature in January, I'll call for statesmanship in the area of higher education. We must fund higher education properly. Even more importantly, we must ensure the money is spent efficiently as we seek to serve the growing numbers of Arkansans attending our two- and four-year institutions. We must avoid needless duplication. Not every institution needs to offer the same courses and degrees. Among our goals in the next legislative session will be an effective response to the challenges of the new economy in the area of higher education.