While Arkansas political leaders debate the future of the "private option" health-care plan, other problems go unnoticed and could be adversely affected by the outcome. One of those is highlighted in a report to be presented Friday to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.

That report, the "Annual Financial Condition Report," includes data comparisons that show Arkansas lagging severely in faculty salaries for 2-year colleges.

The comparisons, which use numbers for the 2011-12 academic year, show faculty salaries for Arkansas’ 4-year colleges also at the bottom but not quite as far behind other Southern states.

Until last fall, enrollment growth at our 2-year colleges had been steadily increasing as Arkansas pushed to raise its percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree, which ranks 49th in the nation, ahead only of West Virginia. Two-year community colleges can provide a cheaper, more efficient entry to the 4-year universities for many students.

Last fall, for reasons that aren’t clear, the total enrollment for Arkansas’ 2-year colleges dropped by more than 4,000 students. Total enrollment for 4-year colleges flattened out, at least in part because some universities had stiffened their entrance requirements.

Those who teach general education core courses in our 2-year colleges are required to have a master’s degree, plus 18 graduate hours in their teaching field. And yet their average salary of $43,997 was $2,317 less than the average public school teacher made in 2011-12.

Does it make sense to pay college-level teachers significantly less than we pay teachers at lower levels of education?

No, and yet that’s our situation. One reason is that we have a constitutional requirement to fund the public schools first. Higher education tends to get the leftovers, which have been meager of late.

The Arkansas average of $43,997 is also $2,417 lower than the next worst average among all Southern Regional Education Board states and almost $8,000 less than the average for all SREB states. The national average is $61,621.

The average faculty salary for Arkansas’ 4-year colleges in 2012 was $62,729, also last in the SREB but not quite as far behind the next lowest or the regional and national averages, which were $75,119 and $79,511, respectively.

"How is Arkansas to remain competitive in higher education with salaries so far below the regional and national average?" the report asks. "The dilemma of Arkansas higher education is how to provide a quality education with the proper credentials because of low salaries. How does Arkansas increase the salaries of faculty in the economic environment facing the institutions of higher education in 2014?"

The answer is that we don’t remain competitive in the long term unless we put more emphasis on higher education.

The report also shows that, in spite of relatively large tuition increases at Arkansas’ 4-year universities, the total funds available per student declined by 1.2 percent from 2006-12. Only two other states in the SREB, Florida and North Carolina, had decreases.

However, the decline for our 2-year colleges was even worse, 5.3 percent, typical among Southern states.

Meanwhile, in the same period enrollment for all Arkansas colleges was up by 20.8 percent, one of the highest rates in the South and well above the national average of 14.8 percent.

Thus, we’ve been getting more people into colleges while trying to educate them at a cheaper rate. Sooner or later that catches up with you.

The problem may get worse with 2015 budgets. Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed a $1.2 million increase for the 2-year colleges and a $3.9 million decrease for the 4-year universities. The latter is somewhat misleading because it includes a $7.6 million decrease for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences under the theory that it will be providing services to fewer uninsured patients because of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Whether that’s a reasonable assumption under current conditions, it falls apart if the Legislature doesn’t renew funding for the private option. All in all, the Beebe budget depends on $89 million in federal funding for Medicaid that could go away. What doesn’t go away is the need to treat sick and injured people regardless of whether they have insurance.

Some opponents of the private options are publicly doubting the numbers, but they have nothing to offer the 85,000-plus people who now have health insurance because of the private option. And they don’t want to say what alternatives they will suggest.

The fact is there aren’t many.

Public education, currently slotted for a $65 million increase under Beebe’s budget, can’t be cut much without new challenges in court. The human services budget will get a nearly $27 million increase, largely fueled by federal funds that come through the private option. We will have Medicaid even without a private option.

Last year the Legislature got tougher on criminals, which will require more money for prisons and law enforcement agencies.

Historically, when the state has budget crises, higher education pays much of the price. That’s why we rank at the bottom in college degrees. You get what you pay for, and we don’t.


Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. H