September 22, 2008

Purcell Seeks To Raise Rates Of Graduation

By Moritz, Gwen

LAST MONTH, JIM PURCELL, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, delivered the bad news:

Despite significant improvement in the rate at which high school graduates who enroll in college - very nearly the national average, in fact - the percentage of Arkansas residents with college degrees is on the decline.

Meanwhile, more than $50 million in state funds already appropriated for college scholarships is sitting in interest- bearing bank accounts because the requirements for qualifying for the money are too restrictive, according to state Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, an Arkadelphia Democrat and chairwoman of a task force searching for a way to increase Arkansas' college graduation rate.

The news underscores the urgency of the work being done by the Arkansas Task Force on Higher Education, Remediation, Retention & Graduation Rates, which on Friday released its 57-page report and recommendations.

The task force, established by the General Assembly in 2007, set an ambitious goal of increasing the percentage of degree-holding Arkansans to the regional average by 2015.

Specifically, that means going from a rate of 18.2 percent (and falling) to 27 percent (and rising) in seven years. It means increasing the current production of bachelor's degrees by 64 percent for each of the next six years at a time when public funding of state institutions is stagnant and the cost of a college education is increasing far faster than wages or even energy-fueled inflation.

The task force makes eight general recommendations supported by dozens of specific suggestions ranging from earlier remediation of high school students with lagging college admission test scores to removing barriers to transfer of credits between institutions to offering tax breaks to Arkansas college graduates who stay in the state to fill high-need jobs.

"If we keep doing the same things, we'll be sitting here in 2015 and saying, 'Well, gee, we didn't reach our goal,' " Roebuck told Arkansas Business last week.

The price of such failure, according to Purcell, will be stark: "We'll be cheap labor for the rest of the world."

Succeeding will require the General Assembly to give ADHE proven weapons, as outlined in "Access to Success," the task force's report. Most of all, it will require money - about $95 million, including some $36 million a year in scholarships.

"If finances is the main reason people leave [college]" - which is a conclusion the task force reached - "then the way to keep them is finances," Purcell said.

Officially neutral on the lottery amendment that will appear on the November General Election ballot, Purcell nonetheless declares that the state needs more money for scholarships - which is exactly what lottery proceeds would be.

Arkansas' college-going rate, according to the ADHE, was 64.7 percent in 2007 - tantalizingly close to the national average (in 2006) of 66 percent. But almost 40 percent of first-time freshmen have ACT scores so low as to require remediation in English, math or reading when they arrive on campus.

Six years later - the idea of a "four-year college" being almost quaint these days - fewer than 39 percent of those Arkansas freshmen will have finished a degree, compared with a national average that is over 55 percent. And students who enter "two-year" colleges are even less likely to have an associate's degree three years later: 20.5 percent compared with a national average of almost 30 percent.

"The number going to college is fairly good," Purcell told Arkansas Business. "We just don't have anyone who finishes. It seems like a little college is enough in the current Arkansas economy."

Focused Hocus-Pocus

Purcell, who in December was hired away from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, describes universities as the last bastions of medieval culture, with their robes and hoods and ranks displayed on sleeves. Fittingly - especially in a state in which higher education is overseen by a "coordinating board" rather than a powerful commission - he has furnished his Little Rock office with a round conference table and has taken a King Arthur approach to consensus building.

He even has a sword in his office, which sounds perfectly reasonable when he talks about it. But he is armed primarily with charts and statistics that build the case that Arkansas is a poor state mainly because it is an under-educated state and that there are proven methods for increasing the number of college students who actually get a degree.

"I like to call it hocus-pocus with a focus," Purcell said, "rather than just doing a shotgun approach and giving everybody more resources. Let's identify what's going to give us the biggest bang for our buck in a state that doesn't necessarily have a lot of bucks to be spending."

Unfortunately, he said, the relative weakness of the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which does little more than make suggestions to the ultimately autonomous colleges and universities, will make the job even harder.

"In other states I've worked at, they've had constitutionally protected governing boards. In this state, we're actually a constitutionally limited board," he said. "There are certain things 'the colleges' don't want us to do, which is to really have a strong oversight of what's happening in the state. The thing is, with limited resources, you really need more guidance."

For instance, if it were up to Purcell, a baccalaureate program in Arkansas would have to produce at least 18 graduates in any three- year period. Right now, the coordinating board's guideline, reached through consensus of the institutions, is half that. And programs that have been around for six years or more don't have to prove their worth at all.

"If the state's not giving you enough money, how can you afford a program with low productivity?" he asks.

Purcell - and here he's in agreement with his fellow members of the task force on higher education - wants instead to focus on increasing enrollment in those fields in which Arkansas has a demonstrated need: business, education, health care specialties. And some of those shortages are a failure of the educational system, not a failure of the students.

"We probably have more applicants to get into nursing than we have slots," he said. "What's the deal? What can we do to make sure we have slots?"

Oklahoma invested $5 million a year for three years and was able to increase its production of newly graduated nurses by about 10 percent a year, according to Purcell.

Another obvious need, according to Task Force chairman Roebuck, is to streamline the transfer of credits between colleges and universities in the state.

"It's ludicrous to think that you can attend Henderson State University for a year and then want to transfer [for whatever reason] to Arkansas Tech University, and you would lose credits in that transfer," Roebuck said. "This problem has been discussed for over 20 years. It is not a new problem."

The task force also wants to use a media campaign and a Web site to entice former college students who have already completed 75 percent of a degree back into the classroom to finish up.


A big part of the Task Force on Higher Education, Remediation, Retention & Graduation Rates' recommendations has to do with making college more affordable. Arkansans are expected to borrow a half- billion dollars for college this year (see story, Page 31), and Purcell points out that many of those students will be saddled with significant debt even though they never finish the degree that would help them earn enough to repay the loans.

At the same time, Roebuck said, only $1 million of the $7.2 million that the Legislature appropriated for the Governor's Opportunity ("GO") Scholarships for 2008 has been awarded, and state accounts are holding $51.8 million in scholarship money that hasn't been awarded because the qualifications don't fit the needs.

"Because of the criteria, then, these scholarships are going unused," Roebuck said. "So [the task force is] recommending that those criteria be reviewed and expanded."

Too many of the patchwork of scholarships Arkansas offers are merit-based, she said, and too few are based on financial need. Roebuck pointed to a quote from Kati Haycock of the Education Trust that is included in the task force's report:

"Though college leaders may not have intended this, higher education - especially the four-year college sector - has become a mechanism for reinforcing social class, rather than a vehicle for fostering social mobility. That's bad for low-income and minority families. And it is bad for America."

Copyright Arkansas Business Aug 18, 2008

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