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REX NELSON: Dumbing down Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | January 5, 2020 at 1:47 a.m.

I remember the day well, though it has been six or seven years since the incident occurred. I was president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities, the organization that represents the state's 11 four-year private institutions of higher learning, and was testifying before a committee of the Arkansas Legislature.

I pointed out that in the 2010 census there was only one state that ranked lower than Arkansas in the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher. That state was West Virginia. I went on to note that the primary goal of legislators should be to find ways to raise the per capita income of Arkansans. The most reliable path to doing that is by increasing the number of college graduates. A member of the Senate, who shall remain nameless, spoke up loudly.

"We don't need more college graduates," he said. "I tell you what we need. We need more plumbers."

He then told a long, rambling story about how hard it had been to find a plumber to come to his home.

I worked in the state Capitol for almost a decade as the policy and communications director in the governor's office. I knew better than to openly disagree with legislators on their turf. So I answered this way: "Senator, we need more of both."

And we do. We need more people with associate's degrees from our 22 community colleges across the state. We need more people with bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates from our four-year colleges and universities. This isn't an either/or debate. The time has come for legislators to realize that if Arkansas is to advance economically, the days of focusing solely on K-12 education are over. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, it must be K-14 or K-16.

A recent headline on the front page of The Wall Street Journal captured my attention. It read: "Factories Seek White-Collar Degrees for Blue-Collar Work."

Austen Hufford wrote: "College-educated workers are taking over the American factory floor. New manufacturing jobs that require more advanced skills are driving up the education level of factory workers who in past generations could get by without higher education, an analysis of federal data by The Wall Street Journal found.

"Within the next three years, American manufacturers are, for the first time, on track to employ more college graduates than workers with a high school education or less, part of a shift toward automation that has increased factory output, opened the door to more women and reduced prospects for lower-skilled workers."

Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, told the newspaper: "You used to do stuff by hand. Now, we need workers who can manage the machines."

With its cotton-based economy in collapse, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state from 1940-60. Desperate to stop the bleeding, which would result in Arkansas dropping from seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to just four, a rookie governor named Orval Faubus pushed through legislation in 1955 to create the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (the entity still exists as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission).

Winthrop Rockefeller, who had moved to Arkansas from New York two years earlier, was persuaded to become the first AIDC chairman. Rockefeller adopted struggling Arkansas and went to work making calls across the country. Any CEO was going to answer a call from a Rockefeller.

Rockefeller had some success doing what recruiters in other Southern states were doing. The strategy was to go to factory owners in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest and, in essence, say this: "We have good, hard-working people down here. We don't have unions. That means your production will still be high, but your cost of doing business will be far less."

You can drive across Arkansas and still see empty buildings that once housed a shoe factory or a cut-and-sew operation. Those jobs left for Mexico, Central America, China or southeast Asia. We still have far too many business and civic leaders across this state who are stuck in that old industrial development mode.

Meanwhile, we have legislators focused on K-12 education while starving higher education. It's a recipe for dumbing down Arkansas.

In the era of term limits, with a limited talent pool in many legislative districts, a large number of Arkansas legislators lack college degrees. These tend to be good men and women who work hard. It's just that with no higher education in their backgrounds, they have a difficult time understanding how a strong system of colleges and universities is key to increasing per capita income.

During my five years at AICU, I felt sorry for my colleagues who worked the halls of the Capitol on behalf of state colleges and universities. They watched as the percentage of their schools' budgets that came from state funds dropped with each passing year. Here's the bottom line: Our legislators have systematically starved higher education.

Those chickens have now come home to roost. Last year, Henderson State University, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock all changed chancellors or presidents in the face of severe financial difficulties.

During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the Legislature seemed intent on putting a community college in every legislative district. The fact is that 22 state-operated two-year schools are too many for a state of 3 million residents. Given the current population losses in the southern half of the state, having four state-operated four-year schools there (Henderson, UAM, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) no longer makes sense.

But the political fact of the matter is that none of these schools will be abolished. By all means, make sure they're operating as efficiently as possible. But to think that efficiency alone will solve the problem is a fool's errand. The Legislature is going to have to spend more money on higher education if Arkansas is to advance. It's that simple.

We live in an era when about two-thirds of Arkansas' counties are losing population. There are only three solid growth areas--northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metro area and the Jonesboro-to-Paragould corridor. Outside of those, the towns that are holding their own from a population standpoint tend to be places with four-year colleges or universities. Think Searcy, Russellville, Batesville, Clarksville, Arkadelphia, Magnolia and Monticello. This isn't an accident. Others (think Harrison and Mountain Home) have strong two-year colleges.

Hufford wrote: "U.S. manufacturers have added more than a million jobs since the recession, with the growth going to men and women with degrees, the Journal analysis found. Over the same time, manufacturers employed fewer people with at most a high-school diploma. Employment in manufacturing jobs that require the most complex problem-solving skills, such as industrial engineers, grew 10 percent between 2012 and 2018; jobs requiring the least declined 3 percent, the Journal found."

He went on to note that specialized job requirements "have narrowed the path to the middle class that factory work once afforded. The new, more advanced manufacturing jobs pay more but don't help workers who stopped schooling early. More than 40 percent of manufacturing workers have a college degree, up from 22 percent in 1991."

Will the Legislature appropriate the money necessary to ensure that our system of higher education meets the demands of the 21st century? I wish I were more optimistic.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 01/05/2020

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