LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A report by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education indicates fewer than 38 percent of those who entered the state’s public universities in 2004 had earned a degree within six years.
The state’s six-year graduation rate has been below 40 percent for the past five years, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday. The annual six-year report is used to compare the universities in Arkansas with those in other states.
U.S. Census figures from December indicate that in the latter half of the past decade, Arkansas ranked second-to-last nationally — ahead of only West Virginia — with only 18.9 percent of residents over age 25 having earned at least a bachelor’s degree. The national average is 27.5 percent.
“I think we all know we’re not where we want to be,” says Shane Broadway, the interim director of the Higher Education Department.
In January, Gov. Mike Beebe said state higher education leaders should have a goal of doubling the number of state residents with college degrees by 2025. Beebe and other state leaders believe if Arkansas has more residents with college degrees, the state’s quality of life will improve through higher pay and it will be easier to attract new businesses.
Broadway says policies introduced by state lawmakers and legislative leaders should influence graduation rates. Those policies include allowing students to take noncredit remedial course work in a subject while also completing for-credit courses in the same subject.
Broadway also said the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships, which were expanded this year by the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, could improve graduation rates because the scholarships will give students more financial resources, allowing them to stay in school without acquiring too much debt.
“We’ve always known the two biggest reasons a person doesn’t compete,” Broadway says. “One is that they aren’t prepared and the other is financial.”
Dr. B. Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System, says it’s important to look at the number of degrees produced by state universities when evaluating their success. Some of the state’s first-time college students come from low-income families, he says, and those students can take longer to earn their degrees because they often have to balance school and jobs.
A report by the nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks 15 states, including Arkansas, said the state produced 7.5 percent more degrees in the 2008-09 academic year than it did the previous year. The report also indicates Arkansas students took an average of 5.3 years to earn the degree.