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The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported last week that overall enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities was down for the seventh year in a row.

In the past three years, the national average has been down by 1.5 percent, 1.3 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent respectively, for a total reduction of 4.5 percent.

Arkansas is already handicapped in college education, ranking low among states in percentage of population with bachelor's degrees, and was tied for seventh-worst in this year's enrollment drop at 3.7 percent. Over the three-year period since 2017, total higher education enrollment in Arkansas is down more than 8 percent.

Enrollment data aren't the whole picture, however. An increase in retention and graduation rates can offset an enrollment decline in terms of degree productivity, which is just what the Arkansas Department of Higher Education reported in its most recent annual report.

Of the most recent four-year class studied (2018), 36.3 percent graduated college within four years. While still low on the national scale, that's a big gain over the previous year's rate of only 25.8 percent.

Arkansas community colleges saw an even larger leap, as the 2018 rate of 21.2 graduating within two years is more than half-again higher than the previous 15.5 percent figure.

Credentialed education translates directly into performance metrics across several lifestyle categorizations, including earning power, parenting, citizenship and lawfulness. Generally speaking, leaving a lot of room for exceptions, better-educated people do better overall. Brain power, as shaped and developed through higher education and skilled training, therefore becomes an important community asset.

Areas with a lot of it, presumably, will progress more than those with less.

That line of reasoning the basis for a measurement scale developed by Bloomberg called its "Brain Concentration Index." Using comprehensive Census Bureau information, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment statistics, Bloomberg issues a dual set of lists each year.

Each list ranks metropolitan areas with a population of 90,000 or more according to a set of scoring measures. The first list scores MSAs on STEM work-force concentration, percentage of population possessing advanced degrees or science and engineering credentials, and net business establishment formation. It's dominated by major metro areas like Boulder, Colo.; Durham, N.C.; and Seattle.

The other, more dubious, list is for "Brain Drain." It assesses metropolitan areas on the outflow of advanced-degree holders, negative changes in white-collar jobs and STEM pay, and net business closures. Bloomberg's bottom 10 on the Brain Drain Index are all much smaller MSAs, and lamentably Arkansas is one of nine states represented.

The Jonesboro MSA, roughly 135,000 people, is one of 366 MSAs in the country with more than 90,000 population. Size-wise, Jonesboro is number 304 and improving, with population growth estimated to be more than 15 percent by the 2020 census.

Coming in at No. 7 in the nation on the 2018 Bloomberg Brain Drain Index, Jonesboro's worst score was on pay changes for jobs in STEM fields.

Obviously, nobody wants to rank high on a list with a name like Brain Drain, and in other places such publicity has provided a sort of "kick in the pants" to refocus and improve. Arkansas in general, as a small and agricultural state, will never fare as well on a list like the Bloomberg index. But it can always improve, and there are a number of examples from other places on ways to do it.

Last year, the Muskegon, Mich., MSA was No. 1 on the Brain Drain Index; this year it fell to number 10 and residents likely hope to be off the list altogether in the next round.

Muskegon used a free two-year tuition scholarship program for area high school seniors with high (3.5+) grade point averages to encourage bright local students to continue their education close to home. Historically, many of the highest GPA students had headed off to larger universities. The tuition incentive resulted in about half of the eligible seniors accepting local scholarships in 2018.

Another brain power attraction strategy focuses not on college selection for high schoolers, but debt reduction for college graduates.

At least 35 states, including Arkansas, have some form of student-loan forgiveness programs in place. But these typically are industry-specific, such as programs for teachers, veterinarians and public service.

Maybe individual communities should warm to the idea that debt forgiveness can be a powerful incentive for highly educated adults (who often have high student-loan balances) to locate in their area.

In a study by the American Institute of CPAs, millennial job seekers burdened by student loans named repayment of loan debt as the job benefit they valued most--ahead of health insurance, paid time off and matching retirement. Coupled with a scholarship program prioritizing local colleges and universities, an MSA-specific debt-forgiveness measure--based on location rather than field of work--might be a way to rapidly plug any community's brain drain.

It's new ground, for sure. But worth pioneering.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 06/07/2019

Print Headline: Plugging the brain drain


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  • PopMom
    June 7, 2019 at 7:19 a.m.

    Arkansas also needs better schools in K-12. It is difficult to have good college students without good K-12 schools. Communities can improve, but it takes hard work and money. Poor communities can turn around if the schools have enough money to attract well educated teachers. Many southern states do not want to spend on education, because the return on the investment takes a few years to materialize. Virginia used to be a sleepy Southern state but it has turned into an economic powerhouse in large part because of the strength of the fabulous northern Virginia public schools. High tech businesses love to locate there due to the large pool of well educated potential employees that the public schools churn out. A major effort in Arkansas to improve the schools would yield large advances in economics in 20 years. People often don't want their local property taxes going up to fund the schools, but they can get it back and more in increased property values from being in a good school district.

  • GeneralMac
    June 7, 2019 at 9:36 a.m.

    Perhaps POPMOM can explain why some small,poor school districts in northern Arkansas gets an "A" rating year after year while some districts in southern Arkansas which has a HIGHER median household income gets "D's " and "F's"

    POPMOM mentioned " well educated teachers".

    Seems those districts I referred to in northern Arkansas has no trouble attracting great teachers.

    Many "great teachers" have no desire to live in misquito laced communities with SKY HIGH crime rates.

    Would the State Education "powers" consider travelling to northern Arkansas to see HOW those schools are managing to get "A" ratings despite being in a VERY LOW median household income area ?

  • PopMom
    June 7, 2019 at 4:42 p.m.


    It used to be illegal in most parts of the South to teach black people to read. Even after the slaves were freed, whites in this country discriminated against them in employment and public schools were segregrated. Communities spent very little money on black schools, and these inequalities still persist in many areas. Discrimination and racism still exist as is evidenced by your attitudes. There are many thousands of examples of blacks who become well educated because they have access to good schools or good teachers either in the classroom or in their homes. Both famous Jeopardy players from Arkansas are black. Much of the population of the Delta lags behind in education because the people living there are not as well educated as in other parts of the country, and these counties lack the wealth to fully fund these schools and rural counties have a hard time attracting well educated talent from out of town. There are some small towns in Arkansas which may be poor and still have excellent schools due to the efforts of some highly educated and motivated teachers. Keep in mind that whites in this country always have had more access to education than blacks. Also, keep in mind that whites in Arkansas in general still lag the rest of the country in education so part of the problem in the Delta has to do with cultural attitudes in rural America with respect to not understanding the importance of education. In agricultural communities people were less likely to make a living by becoming highly educated than their urban counterparts.