UA bachelor’s degrees drop in 2016-17 academic year
FAYETTEVILLE — Fewer bachelor’s degrees were awarded by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in the 2016-17 academic year than a year earlier, with a university spokesman describing an earlier dip in first-year student enrollment as the main reason for the decline.
The decrease comes at a time when state leaders emphasize the number of credentials awarded as they discuss a new “productivity index” for public colleges and universities.
State lawmakers voted this year, at the urging of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to install a new “productivity-based funding model,” with the index expected to drive recommendations for how public dollars are allocated to individual schools.
Bachelor’s degrees awarded by UA dropped to 4,524 from 4,615, based on preliminary data from the university released to the Democrat-Gazette, while total degrees awarded fell to 6,068 from 6,149.
A dip in credentials awarded would “not necessarily” result in decreased funding for a school, Tara Smith, deputy director of the state Department of Higher Education, said in an email.
“Even if overall credentials decreased, an institution may be producing more degrees that have premium weighting such as in STEM and high demand fields that could drive the index score up,” Smith said, referring to an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She said credentials are weighted heavily, but the index — not yet finalized — will also have other metrics and be based on a three-year rolling average to smooth out fluctuations.
The emphasis on credentials differs from another measure, graduation rate, that has been the focus of goals set by UA leaders. It typically excludes transfer students, Smith noted, adding that the index is also “intended to incentivize collaboration between 2- and 4-year institutions.”
Arkansas ranked among the bottom 10 states nationally in the bachelor’s degree completion rate of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year public school, according to a report last year by researchers with Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
At UA, enrollment has increased each year going back more than 10 years, built largely on greater numbers of outof-state freshmen, especially from Texas. Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, in an email described the decrease in degrees awarded in 2016-17 as “an anomaly.”
“We believe the primary reason for the year-over-year decrease in undergraduate degrees (91 fewer in 2017 based on preliminary reports) is due to a dip in the size of the new freshmen class four years ago,” Rushing said, citing a lower first-year award amount for the state lottery-funded Academic Challenge Scholarship as a reason for fewer freshmen that year.
Rushing said the incoming freshman class in 2013 was about 250 students fewer than that of a year earlier, with about 4,300 first-time, fulltime new freshmen arriving in Fayetteville that fall. In fall 2014, 4,518 freshmen enrolled, Rushing said.
He said the university “would expect undergraduate degrees to return to a more normal level next year.”
Rushing said the total says nothing about the rate at which students graduate.
Last year, UA reported a record-high six-year graduation rate of 64.5 percent. The university’s graduation rate is below that of some peer schools in nearby states, however, with Texas A&M University reporting a graduation rate of 80 percent and the University of Missouri reporting a rate of 68 percent.
Rushing restated the school’s commitment to having a greater percentage of students graduate.
“Over the long term we still hope to see a steady increase in that rate. Advancing student success, including increasing four- and six-year graduation rates over time, is one of the key guiding priorities for the campus as set by Chancellor [Joseph] Steinmetz,” Rushing said.
Steinmetz has also spoken about a desire to improve ways for students from twoyear colleges to end up at UA. The university enrolled 1,386 new undergraduate transfer students in fall 2016, according to university data published online, down from 1,463 a year earlier. The category makes up less than 7 percent of all undergraduates.
In the past, universities viewed community colleges as competitors, said Davis Jenkins, co-author of the national report on community college student outcomes.
For universities, freshman and sophomores “are more profitable, because you can offer larger classes,” Jenkins said.
But attitudes are changing in higher education, he said.
“If they’re going to attract and retain students as the price has gone up and family incomes have stagnated, they’re going to have to offer a more efficient path to a degree,” Jenkins said. “It’s got to be clearer to the student, and they’re going to have to work together more to make sure the path is clear.”
The report co-authored by Jenkins looked at data for students who entered a two-year school in fall 2007, tracking whether they went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Based on data from 11 institutions, 28 percent of community college students who transferred to a four-year public school went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from that same Arkansas university. The national average was 42 percent.
Sonia Beltran, 22, said she thought about attending UA after graduating from Bentonville High School in 2013.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to afford the U of A out of pocket,” said Beltran. So she enrolled at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, then transferred to UA and this spring earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Beltran said the transition was “kind of rough” when it came to enrollment at the four-year school.
She said that through Advanced Placement, special courses to help high school students prepare for college, she earned community college credit.
To UA, however, “I was missing a credit,” Beltran said. So she unexpectedly had to take a UA summer economics course.
“Summer classes, they don’t really offer scholarships or anything like that, so I had to pay it all out-of-pocket,” Beltran said.
Otherwise, her community college credits aligned closely with UA’s course requirements, she said.
While attending UA, she said the academic advising often failed to take into account her scheduling needs as she commuted from Bentonville.
“I did work full-time while I was going to school full-time, so getting the classes on [only] two days was very important to me,” Beltran said, explaining that she needed some days set aside for working.
After the “rough patch” at the beginning, “once everything worked out, it was pretty good,” Beltran said, adding that she plans to work in finance and someday be a business owner.
Jenkins said four- year schools should do a better job strengthening advising and orientation for transfer students.
Smith with the state Department of Higher Education said details of both the new index and a separate policy “dealing with the funding distribution aspect of productivity-based funding” could be finalized in October, with further approvals needed.
It’s unclear how much funding for a school might vary based on the index.
“I can confirm that there will be parameters around increases and decreases in state funding from year to year,” Smith said.