No matter where you live in Arkansas, your dentist, optometrist and veterinarian have one thing in common: None of them earned their advanced degrees in this state. No in-state school offers them.
Because we really need people with those skills — along with podiatrists, osteopaths, and chiropractors, all of which also aren’t trained in Arkansas — the state helps pay students’ out-of-state tuition fees through the Arkansas Health Education Grant Program.
Unfortunately, at least for now, the program doesn’t have enough money to meet its commitments. The state’s 23 scholarship programs collectively have sucked the reserves dry. Gov. Mike Beebe will ask legislators for $1.1 million in rainy day funds to pay for scholarships for 47 current students, which shouldn’t be a problem, but the state will be short after that.
Those out-of-state fees can be substantial. LSU really sticks it to us by tacking on an additional $30,000 a year for Arkansas veterinary students, raising the price to about $48,000 a year. Go Hogs.
The best-case scenario, of course, is for Arkansas to start offering those degree programs on its own. UAMS has been considering opening a dental school for several years now, while Arkansas State recently announced that it is exploring starting a school for osteopaths, which is a type of family practitioner who functions like a medical doctor but approaches health care from a different angle. No other school is talking seriously about any of the other disciplines.
This is not a crisis. Legislators probably will find the money to continue these scholarships because they have no choice. Arkansas ranks 50th in the proportion of dentists to the general population. It suffers from a worsening shortage of large animal veterinarians who care for horses and cattle, the latter of which are especially important to Arkansas’ agricultural economy.
The shortage of Arkansas Health Education Grant funds should force the state to question its priorities, however, so that in the future, scholarship dollars go first where they are needed most.
Thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by the voters, the Academic Challenge Scholarship, funded mostly by the lottery, provides up to $14,000 for students to attend a four-year school. About 12,000 graduating high school seniors have accepted these scholarships for next year, with more to be added soon, on top of the students who already had accepted them in previous years.
The fact that students have money to go to college is a good thing, so let’s not downplay it. However, for a few years there was a bit of a "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach to scholarships. The Academic Challenge Scholarship is awarded regardless of demonstrated financial need, which means poor people buy lottery tickets to pay for scholarships for bankers’ kids. It also goes to students who, frankly, aren’t always ready for college or aren’t pursuing critically needed degrees.
Meanwhile, as we are now discovering, there’s not enough money for high-achieving medical and veterinary students who already have graduated college and are preparing to fill critical roles.
The good news is that’s changing. Policymakers are beginning to focus on college completion instead of just college enrollment. Beebe has set a goal of doubling the state’s annual college graduates by 2025, and that’s translating into specific policies. Part of state funding for colleges and universities now is based on how many students they graduate. Legislators this past session, faced with declining lottery receipts, changed the way Academic Challenge Scholarships are awarded so that now students get higher amounts the longer they stay in school.
These are sensible, long-term solutions. In the meantime, legislators will have to find a way to adequately fund the Arkansas Health Education Grant Program. When a cow is sick, a farmer needs a vet and doesn’t care what school awarded the diploma. Or who paid for it.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.