Rate of grads at­tend­ing state col­leges drops a bit

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - AZIZA MUSA

The per­cent of high school grad­u­ates go­ing to col­lege in fall 2016 fell slightly from the year be­fore, in part be­cause of a drop in pub­lic high school grad­u­ates, the Arkansas Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion said in a new re­port.

About half of the 30,152 stu­dents who grad­u­ated from the state’s pub­lic high schools en­rolled in an Arkansas pub­lic col­lege or univer­sity, ac­cord­ing to depart­ment data. That per­cent­age, called the col­lege-go­ing rate, has trailed the na­tion’s — about two of every three grad­u­at­ing high school se­niors con­tinue on to col­lege, data show, and­for the past four years with the na­tion­wide rate in­crease start­ing in fall 2014, Arkansas’ rate de­creased that same year.

“The [na­tion’s] col­lege-go­ing rate has gone up con­sid­er­ably over the past 50 years, but so has the de­mand for peo­ple with col­lege de­grees,” said Thomas Har­nisch, the di­rec­tor of state re­la­tions and pol­icy anal­y­sis at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of State Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties. “Stub­born gaps still re­main based on in­come: stu­dents from wealth­ier back­grounds are much more likely to im­me­di­ately trans­fer into col­lege. In­come gaps … [have] been there for a while, and it’s some­thing that pol­i­cy­mak­ers re­ally need to ad­dress.”

The col­lege-go­ing rate is the first sign of stu­dents’ ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion, though only typ­i­cally for stu­dents start­ing col­lege in the fall af­ter grad­u­at­ing from

a high school in the spring. Ac­cess is one in a tri­fecta — along with af­ford­abil­ity and suc­cess — that higher ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers have homed in on to in­crease the num­ber of res­i­dents who hold a col­lege de­gree.

A bet­ter ed­u­cated work­force will at­tract more com­pa­nies and of­fer Arkansans jobs with higher pay, state of­fi­cials have long said. And Arkansas has his­tor­i­cally fallen be­hind most other states in the per­cent­age of res­i­dents who have de­grees.

“The col­lege-go­ing rate is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant as it fore­shad­ows the fu­ture of a state’s work­force and the vi­tal­ity of a state’s econ­omy,” Har­nisch said.

The Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment re­port mea­sures Arkansans who grad­u­ate from pub­lic schools — not pri­vate or home­schooled stu­dents — and who go to higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions — pub­lic, pri­vate and in­de­pen­dent — within the state. The state does not track stu­dents who go to col­leges or uni­ver­si­ties out of state.

Depart­ment data show that from fall 2012 to fall 2016, a lower per­cent­age of stu­dents are at­tend­ing com­mu­nity col­leges, while the per­cent­age of stu­dents mov­ing from high school to col­lege in­creases for pri­vate and in­de­pen­dent schools. The ma­jor­ity of the state’s high school grad­u­ates still move to a pub­lic, fouryear in­sti­tu­tion.

Among the dif­fer­ent races and eth­nic­i­ties, white and Asian stu­dents go to col­lege at a higher rate than their peers: at 52.9 per­cent and 58.7 per­cent re­spec­tively.

About 38.2 per­cent — or 1,163 of 3,041 — His­panic stu­dents went to an Arkansas col­lege or univer­sity in fall 2016, data show. The rate is up from the year be­fore when 35.1 per­cent, or 1,045 of 2,981, His­panic high school grad­u­ates went on to col­lege.

The only other group whose col­lege-go­ing rate in­creased from last year was

Asian high school grad­u­ates by about six per­cent­age points, data show.

All other race and eth­nic­i­ties had lower col­lege-go­ing rates from fall 2015 to fall 2016.

The rate for black high school grad­u­ates de­creased by about four per­cent­age points with 45.6 per­cent — 2,860 of 6,273 — pub­lic high school stu­dents go­ing to col­lege in fall 2016, data show.

Na­tional rates show dis­par­i­ties be­tween in­come groups: 69.2 per­cent of low-in­come high school grad­u­ates move on to col­lege, 62.2 per­cent of mid­dle-in­come high school grad­u­ates do the same and 83.2 per­cent of high-in­come grad­u­ates fol­low suit, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Statis­tics. The gap be­tween low- and high-in­come rates has steadily been de­creas­ing, though the rate for mid­dle-in­come stu­dents has re­mained fairly steady, data show.

Some states, such as Ten­nessee and Ore­gon, have tack­led the gap by of­fer­ing free tu­ition for stu­dents at­tend­ing com­mu­nity col­leges, Har­nisch said.

“While some of the pol­icy de­tails of those pro­grams are cer­tainly de­bat­able, the mes­sage of free col­lege is very pow­er­ful, es­pe­cially for low-in­come stu­dents,” he said. “The key is to not com­pli­cate it for stu­dents.”

Ten­nessee has also started an ef­fort to help stu­dents com­plete the Free Ap­pli­ca­tion for Fed­eral Stu­dent Aid forms and nav­i­gate com­plex maze of fi­nan­cial aid, he added.

Arkansas has its own ver­sion called the Arkansas Fu­ture Grant, cov­er­ing tu­ition and manda­tory fees. The grants are “last dol­lar,” mean­ing stu­dents must use fed­eral and other state aid be­fore be­ing el­i­gi­ble for them.

In the last few years, the state has cre­ated a higher-ed­u­ca­tion master plan, in part seek­ing to raise the col­lege-go­ing rate of all stu­dent groups to 55 per­cent and raise the rates for un­der­served stu­dents to equal those of other stu­dents.

Schools have started ef­forts to bring in more un­der­served groups, which have typ­i­cally been black and His­panic stu­dents, state lead­ers have said.

As an ex­am­ple, Arkansas Tech Univer­sity in Rus­sel­lville be­gan dis­tribut­ing “How to Go to Col­lege” fly­ers and posters in English and Span­ish in the state’s high schools, said its spokesman Sam Strasner. The state’s third largest univer­sity has also used its stu­dents groups, in­clud­ing the His­panic Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion and the African Amer­i­can Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion, to bring pro­grams sup­port­ing cul­tural aware­ness to the cam­pus, he said.

And in 2015, the school started an Of­fice of Di­ver­sity and In­clu­sion to pro­vide an ad­di­tional aca­demic re­source to aid in the re­ten­tion and grad­u­a­tion of stu­dents from un­der­rep­re­sented pop­u­la­tions, he added.

The school has in­creased its pop­u­la­tion of black stu­dents from 530 in fall 2010 to 921 in fall 2016, ac­cord­ing to data from the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment. Its pop­u­la­tion of His­panic stu­dents dur­ing that same pe­riod in­creased by 121 per­cent with 804 stu­dents in fall 2016, data show.

The Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment re­port comes as the num­ber of pub­lic high school grad­u­ates has fallen for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year in Arkansas. The state recorded some 30,800 pub­lic high school grad­u­ates in 2013, 30,370 in 2014 and 30,152 in 2013.

The West­ern In­ter­state Com­mis­sion for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion is ex­pect­ing the state’s next largest group of high school grad­u­ates in 2024-25, an in­crease of 9.5 per­cent. The group — sim­i­lar to the South­ern Re­gional Ed­u­ca­tion Board — has pro­duced high school grad­u­ate pro­jec­tions for its mem­ber states for decades and has re­cently started do­ing state pro­files for the na­tion, said Peace Brans­berger, a se­nior re­search an­a­lyst there.

The pro­jec­tions come from birth trends from the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau, she said, adding that 2007 was a high point in the na­tion. Af­ter the re­ces­sion, birth rates have sta­bi­lized but not in­creased, lead­ing to a pro­jec­tion of all re­gions in the na­tion fall­ing af­ter 2025, she said.

While that may not af­fect the col­lege-go­ing rate, Har­nisch said, it would change the num­ber of stu­dents.

“As the pool of stu­dents is more re­stricted each year, cer­tainly it’s go­ing to present some chal­lenges,” he said. “Cer­tainly it presents some chal­lenges to col­leges who are in com­pe­ti­tion with each other for th­ese stu­dents, and so they have to be cre­ative and find com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages in the col­lege mar­ket­place. In other parts of the coun­try, it will be im­per­a­tive that [col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties] have enough fund­ing to serve the grow­ing num­bers of stu­dents.”

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