OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | TODD SHIELDS: A-State educates

University committed to Arkansas

Arkansas State University sits outside the two largest population centers and media markets in the state, so its significant role in educating Arkansas doesn't receive the attention it deserves.

Until I arrived on campus in August 2022 after 30 years living and working in northwest Arkansas, I certainly could not have imagined that A-State has more teachers, principals, guidance counselors and superintendents as alumni than any other university in the state. We have alumni educating residents in every county in Arkansas. Moreover, during the last five years A-State has conferred 56 percent more master's degrees and 43 percent more total postgraduate credentials in all fields--doctoral, master's degrees, and certificates--than any other university in Arkansas.

On the heels of record enrollments for fall 2023 and this spring, we anticipate record undergraduate enrollment this coming fall as more high school students and transfer students discover rapidly growing educational and career opportunities. Students find the best of both worlds at A-State--a research institution large enough to attract internationally recognized faculty with an athletics program competing at the highest levels, yet small enough not to be overwhelming, with support for students' physical and mental well-being, strategically designed small classes taught largely by tenure-track faculty instead of a graduate assistant, and opportunities for meaningful involvement in research beginning in the first year.

Arkansas State also pursued online education delivery as early as 2008 as an accessible alternative to traditional campus life, and today has the largest online enrollment of any university in the state.

It's important to know that more than two-thirds of our students are Arkansas residents and more than half are first-generation students. Our graduates are far more likely to continue to reside and work in-state, so it's critical that we align our mission and programs with the needs of Arkansas, the Delta and the Mid-South.

While educating teachers, business professionals, health-care professionals, engineers and agriculture specialists will always be our core areas for undergraduate studies, A-State has become a major destination for graduate health-science studies.

Physical therapy, nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner and occupational therapy programs were first established to meet regional and state demands in health care. The shortage of primary-care physicians and limited access to health care in Arkansas and throughout the Delta led us to a public-private partnership that brought the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine to the A-State campus in 2016 as the state's second medical school, and one of the primary providers of physicians who set up practice in Arkansas.

Development of the state's first veterinary school is underway at A-State as the national accrediting agency reviews curriculum and plans. Every incoming freshman who aspires to become a veterinarian will have the opportunity to begin pre-vet studies on campus and transition to our College of Veterinary Medicine, which we plan to open in fall 2026.

A-State has extraordinary resources and expertise to support a vet school, including on-campus facilities that house horse, chicken and cattle populations; research labs in the Arkansas Biosciences Institute; and graduate science faculty who will complement veterinary faculty additions. Our sister institution, ASU-Beebe, already operates the state's only vet technician program and will be able to enhance training experiences for its students--including integration with our pre-vet program.

Just as we have worked successfully with NYIT to fulfill demands in Arkansas' health-care needs, A-State will help overcome a critical shortage of veterinarians at a time when the demand for vet services has escalated, particularly as our state economy relies heavily on poultry, beef and pork, and as more households enjoy pet ownership. We envision Jonesboro becoming a hub for both large animal and advanced pet health care.

Indeed, A-State is the only university in the state where aspiring health-science professionals can obtain a bachelor's degree and remain on the same campus to pursue options ranging from medical school to vet school to doctoral programs in sciences and other medical fields.

We will continue to educate Arkansas and meet students where they need and want us--as traditional undergraduates enjoying an on-campus experience, through online degree programs, as transfers from a two-year institution, or as professionals seeking additional graduate education. Whatever the path, we're eager to make an education at A-State as affordable as possible.

This is why we have created the A-State Promise Plus program that offers free tuition for most Arkansas families and complements our traditional merit-based scholarship program. We're committed to easing the financial burden for hardworking families as they seek to send their children to college, so we bridge the tuition gap for Arkansas families with a household income of $70,000 or less. It will pay costs not covered by federal grants and state scholarships, plus offer a $2,500 housing scholarship during the first year and even greater levels of housing support in subsequent years.

A-State educates Arkansas through affordable, high-quality degree programs that address workforce demands and help retain much-needed talent for the state's thriving economy.

Dr. Todd Shields is chancellor of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

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