Money, balance and priorities may be the three key take-aways from a series on Arkansas' higher education system.
With a recently concluded series of stories, The City Wire reviewed the state’s higher education system. The stories included the impact of the Arkansas Lottery, unused scholarships and the benefit of the Single Parent Scholarship Program.
Specifically, following are the three themes that emerged from the series’ research and writing:
• We have serious funding issues. Depending on your perspective, the state of Arkansas doesn’t spend enough money on higher education, or the money is not budgeted in a way to maximize results.
• More attention should be paid to the balance between four-year programs and workforce training; i.e., how much do we spend on a philosophy major when business and industry is clamoring for more technical skills training?
• The Arkansas Lottery Program could use a thorough review, to include the possibility of requiring some of the lottery proceeds to support scholarships for non-traditional students.
Please know that what follows is not a laundry list of well-considered solutions – not that such solutions are typically provided in this space. Instead, the remainder of this essay is intended only to present concerns, challenges and opportunities.
The first among those, of course, is money. University presidents say they need more. Governors and legislators often say they’d like to give more to higher education, but there are K-12 budgets and prisons and roads and health care and more roads . And this next legislative session we’ll likely have a Republican majority hellbent on lowering taxes, which could further squeeze the funding stream for higher education.
It will be interesting, however, to see if the budgetary and programmatic discussions touch on HOW the higher education money is spent. Will we look at the viability of education delivery methods designed prior to the Internet and smart devices? When’s the last time we studied the bureaucracy of higher education? And emergency sirens wail from the highest academic towers when it is mentioned, but what are the chances we take a look at performance-based funding?
Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas system, bravely suggested a thorough review of the system — although one might suspect the review would be unpopular if it tinkered too much with funding formulas.
“From rethinking the traditional academic calendar to considering a learn-at-your-own-pace approach to course scheduling, we need to take a strategic and deliberate approach to determine how we can best meet the needs of these students,” Bobbitt noted in his guest commentary for The City Wire.
Let’s hope part of that strategic and deliberate approach includes increased access to Arkansas Lottery Scholarship proceeds for non-traditional students (veterans, those without college degrees who find themselves unemployed at age 45, the spouse who needs a job when their husband/wife dies suddenly, etc.). If you’re old enough to buy a scratch-off card, you should be provided a better chance to score a scratch-off supported scholarship.
Considering the ongoing problems with the state and national economy, one might think the most pressing priority with our education dollars is in how to use them to more quickly funnel skilled people into the workforce.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently issued a report that challenges the We-All-Need-A-Four-Year-Degree mantra. The cleverly monikered report, “Five Ways That Pay Along The Way To The B.A.,” clearly suggests that higher education officials should be more interested creating a system that allows access to “five Career and Technical Education pathways that educate and train Americans for these jobs.” Those pathways are certificates, employer-based training, industry-based certifications, apprenticeships and associate’s degrees. (Link here to a PDF of the executive summary.)
“These” jobs are, according to the Georgetown study, the 29 million “middle jobs” in the U.S. that pay $35,000 or more, that require skills but don’t require a bachelor’s degree. The 29 million jobs represents one out of every five American jobs, and almost half of the jobs that pay middle-class wages.
The Georgetown report asserts that “the best jobs” for men and women are in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and healthcare “pathways, where more than 80% of jobs pay middle-class wages.
“Compared to other advanced economies, the United States underinvests in sub-baccalaureate, career and technical education,” Anthony Carnevale, the Center’s director and the report’s lead author, said in a press release.
This idea of a system that allows people convenient entry and exit has been brewing for years, with folks like Glen Fenter often being the lone advocate in Arkansas’ higher education system.
Fenter, a native of Charleston, Ark., and now president of West Memphis-based Mid-South Community College, was talking “system loop” before the term was accepted by the higher education brass who believed anything less then a four-year plan was heresy.
A system-loop example somewhat close to home comes courtesy of Arkansas Tech University-Ozark Campus. A new associate of general studies degree allows student advisors to work with existing and new students “to tailor their coursework to meet industry needs,” and also prep for a move into a four-year degree. Like Fenter, ATU-Ozark Chancellor Jo Blondin has long been an advocate of getting people engaged in a system that best meets their immediate needs, but also encourages them to re-engage higher education when possible.
All that being said, we’re back to money, balance and priorities. My concern is that the higher education funding debate in Arkansas’ 2013 General Assembly will be focused entirely on the simple but politically-charged task of divvying up the money.
Balance and priorities will be caught between a system seeking status quo and new legislative leaders pushing a smaller government agenda.