Arkansas improves its rate of degrees, but state still lagging U.S., neighbors

A greater share of Arkansans has bachelor's degrees now than in 2010, but the state still lags behind the rest of the country outside of its two largest metropolitan areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last week.

Pulaski, Benton and Washington counties are the only Arkansas counties with rates of bachelor's degree holders higher than the national average in 2017, according to the data, which is a part of the 2013-2017 American Community Survey. The estimates measure people 18 and older.

Research shows that higher educational attainment is associated with higher lifetime income, health outcomes and less crime, among other things.

In 2010, only Pulaski County had a percentage higher than the national average. Northwest Arkansas has outpaced the national average but remains well behind the region's ideal peers, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"It's really a major economic development problem, because there's a variety of different companies that may want to start here, move here," Jebaraj said.

Northwest Arkansas doesn't have the workforce to compete with other up-and-coming metropolitan areas in a knowledge-based economy, he said.

Arkansas' rate of bachelor's degrees rose by 2.9 percentage points -- from 19.1 percent of Arkansans 18 and older to 22 percent. Only Missouri and Tennessee had higher increases. Yet, Arkansas' rate of bachelor's degrees is still lower than all of its surrounding states except for Mississippi.

Nationally, 30.9 percent of people 18 and older had bachelor's degrees in 2017, up from 27.9 percent in 2010.

Across Arkansas, higher concentrations of bachelor's degree holders tend to live where four-year universities are located, and lower concentrations tend to be in the poorest and least-populated areas.

Most Arkansas counties saw their shares of bachelor's degree holders increase by the Census Bureau's estimates, but about half of those increased within the margin of error of the estimates. Sixteen counties had percentage point decreases, but all except two of those were within the margin of error -- Monroe (3 percentage point decline) and Sharp (down 2 percentage points).

"The challenge for Arkansas, of course, is that it started behind a lot of the other states to begin with," said Michael Moore, vice president of Academic Affairs for the University of Arkansas System and chief of academic and operations for the system's eVersity online school.

Moore said an online school like eVersity is one way to improve the rate of bachelor's degrees. He estimates the average eVersity student has 70 college credit hours when they enroll. They typically have attended two colleges prior to eVersity and "stopped out," as he called it, rather than "dropped out," because "life happened."

The online school just finished its third year of operation.

Moore and others said preparing and supporting students was key to helping them stay in school and eventually graduate. That means programs to ready students for college courses, emergency loan programs, tutoring and other additional instruction, and "great academic advising," he said. Tuition-free community college programs like Tennessee Promise could help in Arkansas, he said.

ARKANSAS — Percent of people holding bachelor's or higher by county in 2017 | Percentage point change from 2010 to 2017

NATIONAL — Percent of people holding bachelor's or higher in 2017: By county | By state
Percentage point change from 2010-2017

In Arkansas, one-year retention rates have increased since the 2012-2013 school year for four-year colleges, from 64.3 percent to 67.2 percent, according to the 2017-2018 Annual Report of Retention and Graduation compiled by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. That report measures through the 2016-2017 school year. Graduation rates at those schools are also increasing.

At the same time, a lower percentage of Arkansas public high school students are going to college. In fall 2013, 51.4 percent of those students enrolled in school, compared with 65.9 percent nationally.

But while the national rate grew to 69.8 percent, Arkansas' rate dropped to 48.2 percent.

"We just don't have enough people going to college," Jebaraj said.

Students don't feel prepared, don't realize it's a feasible option or struggle to pay for tuition that keeps rising to make up for flat state funding compounded with rising college expenses, he said.

The state also has changed how it funds post-secondary schools. It's now based on outcomes at each institution, rather than the enrollment figure. Schools get anywhere from about 35 percent to, at the most, 50 percent of their funding from the state, said Nick Fuller, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. That's less than the share the money used to provide.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's push for workforce education will help the department reach its goal of 60 percent of Arkansans having some kind of post-secondary credential by 2025, Fuller said. But that goal includes technical certificates and associate degrees, in addition to bachelor's degrees or higher.

Arkansas has improved its high school graduation rate since 2010, according to the Census data. That could mean positive things for college graduation rates, Moore said.

"It's going to take several years before we start seeing the change," he cautioned, but "it should help."

From 2010 to 2017, the share of Arkansans 18 and older who had graduated from high school rose from 81.9 percent to 85.6 percent, a 3.7 percentage point increase. That's faster than the national pace during that time, which was 2.3 percentage points, from 85 percent to 87.3 percent.

Most places will eventually hit a ceiling with high school graduation rates, Moore said, and many states may be approaching that.

"The good news is Arkansas' got a lot of room to improve," he said.

Still, Moore emphasizes finding ways to keep people in higher education. He recalls his parents having only high school diplomas and still raising a middle class family years ago, but the economy doesn't allow for that anymore.

"Those days are pretty much gone," he said.

Jebaraj said "knowledge-based" economies, or jobs based in information or ideas rather than labor, are becoming more dominant.

Arkansas still has a long way to go to compete, he said.

He also mentioned Tennessee Promise as something that could help Arkansans. Tennessee's percentage point increase of bachelor's degree-holding residents -- 3.4 percentage points -- was among the highest in the nation, according to the Census data.

Right now, Jebaraj said, the state has to attract outside talent to fill jobs.

"I think at the end of the day, if we don't grow our own workforce, the only way you can grow your workforce is by attracting people outside of the region," he said.

Pulaski County still has the state's highest percentage of residents 18 and older with bachelor's degrees at 33.7 percent. That's tied for 311th nationally. Three other counties also have rates of 33.7 percent: Ontario County in New York, the home of Rochester; Deschutes County in Oregon, the home of Bend; and Montgomery County in Texas, northwest of Houston.

Jebaraj said area leaders like to compare Northwest Arkansas to Provo, Utah; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisc.; and Raleigh, N.C. The region's share of residents with bachelor's degrees is far below each city's home county.

Utah County's percentage is the lowest of the four cities at 39.4 percent, but still far higher than either Benton or Washington counties, which have rates of 31.7 percent and 31.9 percent, respectively. The percentages are 47.5 in Travis County, Texas; 50 in Dane County, Wisc.; and 51 in Wake County, N.C. Neighboring Durham County, N.C., has a bachelor's degree rate among residents of 47.5 percent.

Not every Arkansas county with a four-year college has a higher-than-average population with bachelor's degrees. In Jefferson County, home of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, 16.8 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree. In Johnson County, where University of the Ozarks is located, 15.7 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree. Drew County, home of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, is close to average at 18.5 percent.

Benton County's rate is tied with Warren County, N.J.; Allentown, Pa.; a metropolitan area and Lake County, S.D., a small county that is home to Dakota State University.

Washington County's rate is tied with several other counties, notably Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located; Scott County, Iowa, in the Quad Cities region; Campbell County, Ky., in the Cincinnati metropolitan area; Prince George's County, Md., in the U.S. Capitol region; Clay County, Mo., in the Kansas City area; and Washington County, Tenn., in the Tri-Cities area.

State Desk on 12/10/2018

CORRECTION: Clarksville is home to the University of the Ozarks. The university's name was misstated in an earlier version of this article.