UA bach­e­lor’s de­grees drop in 2016-17 aca­demic year

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JAIME ADAME

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.

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