In 2007, the Arkansas legislature created a task force on higher education reform. Last week, the task force produced its final report, Access to Success (opens in PDF file), an extensive list of problems with and recommendations for our state’s higher education system.
I mentioned this report last week in a post that Arkansas Project editor David Kinkade thoughtfully titled Is College a Waste of Time? So let me answer the question: Yes. Definitely. For some people, college is a huge waste of time.
But for many others, it’s the best possible way that they could spend four years of their lives.
That’s obviously true, right? Many of us would benefit or have benefited greatly from higher education, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, encouraging more Arkansans to get college degrees has costs as well as benefits, but Access to Success doesn’t discuss them.
What permeates Access to Success is this statistic—that Arkansas ranks 50th in both per-person income and percentage of people (25 years and older) with college degrees—and the conclusions that the report’s authors draw from it.
If you want the conclusions that I draw from reading Access to Success, click here.
Access to Success is worth reading for anyone involved in Arkansas’s higher education system. (If you’re an Arkansas taxpayer, believe me, you’re involved.) I am grateful to the authors for taking the time to point out some serious deficiencies in our state’s higher education system. The report’s recommendations range from the good to the bad to the odd.
The report makes some good recommendations—for instance, it recommends exploring alternatives to our current system of remedial education. Our extensive remediation programs run the risk of crowding out the educational work that colleges should be doing.
(One of our biggest problems in higher education today is the very large number of students who, having just arrived at college, are already behind and require remedial education in basic skills. Frighteningly large numbers of Arkansas college freshmen need remediation: Over half of our two-year college students and over a quarter of our four-year college students need it.)
The report’s attempt to bring attention to huge wastes and inefficiencies in our higher education system— such as the widespread inability to transfer credits from one school to another and the failure of our entire system to collect and keep data about costs and student outcomes—also deserves praise.
Access to Success also makes some recommendations that are less praiseworthy, such as tying college funding to student retention. I appreciate this proposal’s intentions, but I have concerns about its likely results. Providing financial rewards for colleges that retain larger numbers of students will create bureaucratic and administrative pressure to weaken academic standards. Our resources need to go primarily to helping students who want to stay in college, not to pleading with students to stay in school when they may have better alternatives.
The report’s very first suggestion is, at best, odd: It urges Gov. Mike Beebe to spearhead a public campaign about the importance of higher education, focusing on how much bigger educated people’s paychecks are and how much more economically successful Arkansas will be when we have a bunch more people with college degrees.
I wonder: don’t people by and large already know that they’re more marketable with an advanced degree? I would guess that many people who could be in college, but aren’t, are well aware that having a degree would be helpful. They just don’t want to spend several years worth of time, talents and tuition to get there. This suggests that a gubernatorial PR campaign to inform Arkansans about the advantages of a college degree would accomplish little or nothing.
The entire report is worth reviewing, but those are my first impressions. So what’s next? Later this week, I’ll lay out some ideas for education reform in Arkansas.