Number of master’s degrees awarded in state increasing

Proficiency certificates also rise; tech certificates down

The number of certificates of proficiency and master's degrees awarded in Arkansas are increasing while technical certificates and bachelor's degrees are decreasing, according to the latest data from the Arkansas Division of Higher Education.

Arkansas higher education institutions reported little change in the number of students receiving credentials and the number of credentials awarded for the 2022-23 academic year compared with the prior year.

The number of students receiving credentials has remained consistent for the past five years with slightly more than 40,000 unduplicated students receiving awards, according to the higher education division. However, since 2014 the number of credentials awarded each year has increased at a much higher rate, from 41,360 total credentials awarded in 2014 to more than 50,000 credentials awarded in 2023, a 21% increase due mostly to a rise in awards in several degree levels at colleges and universities.

The number of certificates of proficiency awarded has increased by more than 2,000 from 2021 to 2023, although 2021 was impacted by the pandemic, while technical certificates have gone the other way, as 2023's 5,882 is the smallest number of technical certificates awarded since 2018, according to the state higher education division.

The number of associate degrees has remained consistent at roughly 10,000 for the past five years, except for a modest drop in the pandemic-impacted 2021.

"We're unsure of causation" regarding the increase in certificates of proficiency and decrease in technical certificates, although short-term degrees are rebounding faster than longer-term degrees, like bachelor's degrees, and certificates of proficiency require the least amount of credit hours of any credential, Ken Warden, the higher education division director, said Friday.

"It's a little curious" why technical certificates would be down while certificates of proficiency would be up, but "the numbers speak for themselves," he said.

In 2021, 16,947 bachelor's degrees were awarded, the most ever in the state, but that figure has dropped since, down to 15,408 for 2023, according to the division. Although undergraduate credentials remain the majority of awarded credentials, at 82%, more students are getting master's degrees than ever before, with 6,141 awarded in 2023 -- the first time more than 6,000 have been awarded since 2017.

"These are just the raw numbers, and we haven't been able to dig into them fully, yet, [but] we do think bachelor's degrees will rebound" as the state and country continue to move out of the pandemic era, Warden said. The pandemic may have played a role in the increase in master's degrees, as they generally require less time to complete than bachelor's degrees.

The state's public four-year universities consistently award 55% of total statewide credentials, with 37% from public two-year schools, 7% from private independent institutions, and 1% from nursing schools and technical institutes, according to ADHE. The four-year universities reported a 2% increase in credentials awarded from 2022 to 2023, while two-year colleges saw a 3% decrease, private/independent schools were essentially flat, and nursing schools/technical institute saw a 12.5% decline.

CONCURRENT ENROLLMENT

Concurrent enrollment, which allows students to obtain credit toward a high school diploma at the same time they earn college credit, is being utilized by more than 21,000 current high school students, which is roughly 14% of the state's high school students, according to Mason Campbell, assistant commissioner of Academic Affairs at the state higher education division.

Concurrent enrollment dropped off during the pandemic, but has since rebounded, with more high school students concurrently enrolled in 2023 than in any of the prior four years, and the vast preponderance of these students -- roughly 90% -- were passing with a C-grade or better across all course type categories.

Data illustrates students who concurrently enroll while in high school are not much more likely to attend college than those who did not; however, fall-to-fall retention rates are "significantly higher" -- approximately 15% -- for students who took concurrent credit than for students who did not, according to Campbell.

Those who took concurrent credit are also more likely to finish a credential or a bachelor's degree in six years than those who did not; depending on the year, they were 5-10% more likely to complete a credential and 5%-8% more likely to attain a bachelor's degree.

"Correlation is not necessarily causation, and the pandemic" certainly impacted some of these results, but this data "implies" better college outcomes for those who did concurrent enrollment than those who did not, Campbell said Friday. "It's certainly good news for concurrent enrollment, but we need a lot more data" to draw definitive conclusions.