The Arkansas Razorbacks lost to both Mississippi schools this year in football, but at least the state leads in another, more important area: the number of adults age 25-64 with college degrees.
The bad news is that there are 47 states to go. At 21 percent, Arkansas ranks ahead of only Mississippi and West Virginia, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
Washington, D.C., whose football team also has had a disappointing season, is first at 53 percent; Massachusetts is second at 39.3. The national average is 30.1 percent.
Not everybody needs to go to college, but college graduation rates statistically are associated with many good things, including higher incomes, longer lifespans and even lower divorce rates.
One of the ways the state is trying to improve its ranking is streamlining the process for earning credit in basic college courses such as freshman English. Through concurrent credit, high school students can fulfill high school and college requirements in the same course. The assumption is that a student is more likely to graduate college if it takes less time and money to do so.
There’s various ways of doing this. For example, Bearden High buses practically its entire senior class to Southern Arkansas University Technical College in Camden, where students can take college courses or, if they are so inclined, gain technical skills in areas such as welding and auto mechanics.
According to Shane Broadway, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, some students are graduating high school with a two-year degree. One high school student also attending the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith "got his associate’s degree one week and his high school diploma the next."
The state’s 33 four-year and two-year colleges don’t have uniform concurrent credit policies, which is a problem because it’s important to ensure the hours a student earns in high school transfer anywhere. Broadway said college leaders are meeting to discuss this issue with plans for public school administrators to join the discussion.
The state is trying other ways to increase college completion rates. Two years ago, the Legislature ordered schools to reduce the credit hours students must attain to no more than 120 for a four-year degree and 60 for an associate’s degree. A practical math class, quantitative literacy, has been developed for students in non-technical fields to take in place of college algebra, which trips up a lot of students early and proves an impossible hurdle for some. The state also is tying college funding to graduation rates. Steps have been taken to prevent grade inflation; it remains to be seen how well they work.
Changes in remediation courses are happening, too. Forty percent of Arkansas college students must cover material in college that they should have learned in high school, with rates far worse at two-year colleges (67.8 percent) than four-year schools (29 percent).
That means students are starting college paying for high school-level courses for which they get no credit. Not surprisingly, while 52.1 percent of non-remediated students who entered a four-year school in 2007 have graduated with a degree, only 21.4 percent of remediated students have done so. The state’s higher ed community is trying to address this in a number of ways, including working with students while they are still in high school and creating partial remedial courses that can correct deficiencies in a few weeks rather than a semester of work.
This attempt to reduce some of college’s waste and fluff is a good thing. Students should enter college with a foundation of knowledge and then learn employable skills, and it doesn’t matter if this takes two years or four. Taxpayers should be asked only to help students get jobs, not fund unnecessary semesters so students can become well-rounded individuals. Get them in and get them out so they can earn a living.
Now we just need to remediate the Razorbacks.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.