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The Arkansas college challenge

Good news came from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education earlier this month. The number of students enrolled in Arkansas colleges and universities this fall is at an all-time high. The total of 165,201 students is up 6.3 percent from 2008 and an amazing 17.2 percent from four years ago.

Jim Purcell, the state’s higher education director, put it this way: “Especially in these difficult economic times, we believe that students see the value of education more than ever, and along with increases in enrollment, we hope to see corresponding increases in retention and graduation rates.”

Nine of the 11 four-year public universities experienced enrollment increases. Arkansas Tech led the way with a 10.8 percent increase in the number of college students. The University of Arkansas at Monticello had a 9.3 percent gain. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was up 7.9 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith was up 7.3 percent. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock was up 6.7 percent. Arkansas State was up 6.4 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville was up 3.4 percent. Only Henderson and the University of Central Arkansas had fewer students enrolled among the public four-year schools.

Some of the most amazing growth continues to occur among the two-year schools. Mid-South Community College at West Memphis, under the strong leadership of Glen Fenter, is up 29.3 percent. Pulaski Technical College is the largest two-year scool with 10,258 students. That’s 12.8 percent more college students than last year. Northwest Arkansas Community College has 8,034 students, up 11.5 percent.

Jim Purcell, however, hits the nail on the head when he mentions retention and graduation. Getting more students enrolled in college is good. But that’s only part of the equation as this state seeks to advance economically.

Here’s where Arkansas finds itself as we near the end of 2009:

1. Thanks to the changes brought about by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View ruling, the state is doing a better job than in past years preparing high school students for college.

2. Thanks to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, far more financial aid will be available than in the past for students wanting to enroll in an Arkansas college or university.

3. More students than ever before are entering the higher education system.

Now, we must find ways to ensure they stay there and earn their degrees. It was reported earlier this year that the cumulative six-year graduation rate for public universities in Arkansas was 44.8 percent for the 2002 cohort of students, down 1.2 percent. That kind of drop is not acceptable. For Arkansas to advance economically, it’s going to have to rise far higher than its current ranking of 49th for the percentage of adult residents with college degrees.

The governor and members of the Arkansas Legislature face these challenges:

1. Ensuring that the positive changes that have occurred since the 2002 Lake View ruling remain in place. The standards that have been put in place for students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade are starting to produce results. In each legislative session, however, there will be know-nothing legislators who try to water down those standards. If anything, they need to be made stronger so the state’s high school graduates are ready for college.

2. Tying state funding for institutions of higher learning more closely to retention and graduation rates. Arkansas doesn’t need students who enroll as freshmen and then drop out. That’s a waste of limited state resources. We need students who will earn degrees. The competition among colleges and universities must be about more than gross enrollment numbers. Those schools that do a poor job of retention should be punished where it hurts — in the pocketbook.

3. Making sure that funding levels for general education and higher education aren’t cut. The money being generated by the lottery cannot be used as an excuse for cutting the amount of money for education that comes from the state’s general revenue fund and other funding streams. The lottery money is targeted for new scholarships. It’s not intended to be a replacement for funds already being channeled into the education system.

Let’s hope our elected leaders are up to the challenge. In Arkansas, the public policy focus must now be on college retention and graduation.

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