More students are staying in school and graduating across Arkansas higher-education institutions, according to a new report from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
Last school year, state colleges and universities awarded their highest number of credentials ever -- 44,571 -- buoyed by four-year universities. The data do not break down how many students may have earned more than one degree. Credentials include certificates up through doctorate degrees. Schools include four-year universities, community colleges, private and independent colleges, and nursing schools.
Community colleges, which have been experiencing declining enrollments, have been awarding fewer credentials. Community colleges awarded 15,320 credentials during the 2017-2018 school year, down from more than 16,000 in recent years. Credentials also have declined slightly at private and independent colleges.
The increases in credentials, retention and graduation rates aren't dramatic. But taken as a trend, they are encouraging for higher-education leaders.
Jim Carr, chairman of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, called the increase in credentials awarded "outstanding" at Friday's quarterly board meeting, where the report was presented.
"We continue on an upward trajectory, that's for sure," said Sonia Hazelwood, department associate director for research and analytics, who presented the report.
At one college where retention and graduation rates improved, the chancellor said support for students made the difference.
One of the highest increases in student retention occurred at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, which has improved retention rates four years in a row, while also making gains in graduation rates.
The rate was 29.6 percent for the most recent group of four-year graduates, up from 27.5 percent for the group two years before, and 32.3 percent for the most recent six-year graduates, up from 28.6 percent.
For retention, more than half of UAM students who started in fall 2017 stayed in school. That's up from 46.7 percent for those who started in the fall of 2013.
That's not a surprise to the university, said Chancellor Karla Hughes.
"I don't think the student body is very different, she said. "I think what we're doing with our students is very different."
The school faces retention challenges because of its status as an open-admissions school, where more students than average need remedial courses. Students are admitted regardless of test scores or high school grades.
But the university, since Hughes' arrival in 2016, has hired more academic counselors and created "more intensive" faculty advising, Hughes said. Like other schools, the university has implemented an "early alert" system that notifies advisers when students are not attending classes or meeting grade expectations.
In more recent efforts not yet reflected in the state retention or graduation reports, the university has opened a student success center that offers advising, career counseling, mental-health counseling and more tutoring than before. It opened this fall, and tutoring services have increased 300 percent, Hughes said.
The university will start a Pathways Initiative in the fall, although staff members already are using some of the program's ideas as the university develops the initiative, Hughes said. The initiative will help steer students toward majors and programs of study that reflect their experiences.
For instance, a student who expressed an interest in nursing but who did not do well in biology and math in high school would be encouraged to choose another program of study, she said. Once the student can be successful in college, more programs of study may open up to such a student, she said.
Overall, statewide graduation rates for first-time, credential-seeking students have risen for both four-year universities and community colleges, according to the report.
Of the most recent four-year group studied, who would have attended college from the fall of 2014 until the spring of 2018, 36.3 percent graduated within four years. That's up from 25.8 percent for the previous four-year group. At the same time, students graduating from a university within six years and within 10 years also have risen, although by smaller amounts.
At community colleges, 21.2 percent graduated within two years for the latest class, up from 15.5 percent for the previous four years. The rates also increased for those who graduated within three years and those who graduated within five years.
Arkansas' graduation rates include part-time students, while national statistics are for first-time, full-time students only, rendering a comparison between the report and national data impossible.
Arkansas remains behind the national average in retention.
For the 2015-2016 school year, retention was 81 percent across all types of schools, for first-time, full-time undergraduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It was 59 percent at open-admissions institutions and 95 percent at schools that accept less than 25 percent of applicants.
In Arkansas, retention for fall 2017 admissions was 68 percent across all institutions, up from 54.9 percent for the fall 2013. It was 73.9 percent at four-year universities, up from 71.1 percent for the fall 2013 group. Retention steadily increased to 51.2 percent for the fall 2017 group, and retention has fluctuated without a trend at private and independent colleges.
Metro on 04/24/2019
Print Headline: College retention rate on rise in Arkansas, report shows