Higher ed­u­ca­tion stats need bet­ter anal­y­sis

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

On Sun­day, Oct. 8, the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette pub­lished an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “State col­lege en­roll­ment sees an­other de­cline.” A ma­jor por­tion of the in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the ar­ti­cle was sup­plied by the Arkansas Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. That in­for­ma­tion is, at best, vir­tu­ally worth­less, and at its worst could mis­lead those who waded through al­most six col­umns of ver­biage.

Fore­most, many of the stu­dents en­rolled in Arkansas’ higher in­sti­tu­tions come from other states. The Arkansas Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion should be fo­cus­ing its ef­forts to present in­for­ma­tion on the stu­dents from our state, not ag­gre­gate sta­tis­tics. The ques­tions raised by their fail­ure are myr­iad. For Arkansans, is that num­ber go­ing up or down? What is the grad­u­a­tion rate for th­ese stu­dents? There is no men­tion of the im­pact of In­ter­net ed­u­ca­tion, even that of­fered by the Univer­sity Sys­tem. Are more of the state’s stu­dents en­rolling in web pro­grams in hopes of earn­ing a de­gree? Some of the higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions of­fer grad­u­ate pro­grams. How many of th­ese stu­dents are from out­side Arkansas? Will there be op­por­tu­ni­ties to em­ploy them when their grad­u­ate work is com­plete?

Ap­par­ently some­one in the Arkansas Depart­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion en­vi­sions her­self or him­self as an econ­o­mist. There are sev­eral quotes in the ar­ti­cle ref­er­enc­ing the Arkansas econ­omy and the con­clu­sion that the econ­omy is im­prov­ing statewide. The economies of var­i­ous coun­ties across the state are any­thing but ho­mo­ge­neous. Em­ploy­ment de­clined in 57 of our coun­ties between 2000 and 2016. Would this have a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive im­pact on the higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, and most par­tic­u­larly, the two-year in­sti­tu­tions lo­cated in th­ese ar­eas? An “old wives’ tale” says more peo­ple go to higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions when the econ­omy is poor. How­ever, it does not ex­plain who pays for that if there are fewer jobs. One might also want to look at how the pop­u­la­tion has be­haved across the state. Cer­tainly in the ag­gre­gate the pop­u­la­tion of Arkansas has in­creased, but it has de­clined in 42 of our 75 coun­ties. Might this play a role in any con­clu­sions about en­roll­ments in higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions?

One fi­nal ob­ser­va­tion. Ap­par­ently the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment be­lieves politi­cians are cor­rect when they blithely as­sert if we have more col­lege grad­u­ates the econ­omy will im­prove. An im­proved econ­omy may go hand-in-hand with the num­ber of col­lege grad­u­ates but cor­re­la­tion anal­y­sis does not dis­tin­guish between the in­de­pen­dent and de­pen­dent vari­ables. There is ev­i­dence, in­deed, that the op­po­site cau­sa­tion is true: Im­prove the econ­omy and the num­ber of col­lege grad­u­ates will in­crease.

PHILLIP TAY­LOR

Fayet­teville

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