Arkansas has the nation’s second lowest percentage of adults ages 25 to 64 with college degrees, its 19 percent beating only West Virginia. And while college is not for everyone and there are lots of honorable ways to make a decent living, statistically, the average person with a college degree makes more money than the average person without one.
How can Arkansas move up the ranks? A seemingly obvious solution is enrolling more students in college. That’s been happening, thanks to a variety of policies and programs, particularly the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, funded mostly by the lottery.
The problem is, just getting an 18-year-old to college doesn’t accomplish much if he or she stays only a year. In fact, it wastes their time and money, the college’s resources, and the dollars paid by taxpayers and lottery ticket purchasers.
More of an emphasis now is being placed on college completion – the latest example being a restructuring of the lottery scholarship so that it rewards students for advancing toward a degree.
Under a law passed by the Legislature and about to be signed by the governor, four-year students now will receive $2,000 their freshman year and an additional $1,000 each year, so that by their fourth year they are receiving $5,000. Students at two-year schools will get $2,000 each year for two years.
That’s a significant change. The scholarship had been granting awards of $4,500 for all students attending four-year schools and $2,250 for students attending two-year schools.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t afford to continue to do that. The program handed out about $16 million more this year than it collected and has been giving out about $20 million a year to college freshmen who either quit school or are ineligible before they are sophomores. It’s been surviving thanks to an $80 million surplus the lottery collected when it was first created, before it started funding scholarships. But that surplus is almost gone.
The tiered approach makes sense. It closes the program’s deficit by reducing the total scholarship payout from $18,000 to $14,000. Meanwhile, it rewards students for advancing through college. If the state only has limited funds, it’s better to invest $5,000 in students who are almost ready to graduate than $4,500 in 18-year-olds who haven’t proven serious about their education.
How students qualify for the scholarship, unfortunately, has not yet been addressed. Students are awarded the money if they score a 19 on their ACT test or have a 2.5 grade point average. However, to keep the scholarship, they must maintain a 2.5 in college.
In other words, we take the scholarships away from upperclassmen enrolled in difficult and much-needed majors like engineering if they don’t keep a 2.5. But we open up our wallets for good ACT test-takers who, for whatever reason, couldn’t maintain a 2.5 in high school. We expect they’ll do better in a more demanding environment. Then we take the scholarships away when they don’t.
The state is taking other steps to encourage college completion. It’s been trying to improve public schools so that students are more prepared for college when they arrive. In the past, funding for colleges and universities largely has been tied to how many students an institution enrolls – how many rear ends it puts in the seats, in other words. Starting this next fiscal year, five percent of colleges’ state funds will be tied to how many graduates they produce, and that number will increase by five percent a year until it hits 25 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the state has enacted a number of policies to help students graduate. One example: Because college algebra has proven to be such a stumbling block, a new, practical math course has been created for students in nonmath-related fields.
Will all this add up to Arkansas producing more college graduates? I don’t know. I was one of those students in a nonmath-related field.
(Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)