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Graduate NWA hosts back-to-college fair

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

It’s been a year since the Northwest Arkansas Council and six partner schools joined forces to try and direct more working adults back to college. More than 50 interested residents signed in during the first hour at Tuesday’s back to college fair held at the Jones Center in Springdale.

Program sponsors set up stations at Tuesday’s four-hour event evaluating transcripts, answering questions on financial aid options and distributing information on their respective colleges.

The Graduate NWA initiative launched a website last fall as a central hub for potential students to get basic information.

“We’re still learning how to engage potential students (comebackers) and hope to learn from our experience at the fair," said Rob Smith, spokesman for the NWA Council.

Stacey Sturner, program director, said the website averages about 40 “hits” per day, but ahead of Tuesday’s fair the number of visitors escalated to 360 on Sunday and roughly 200 on Monday, which was a good sign for Tuesday’s fair.

Bobby Conway, co-owner of NWA Mortuary Services, attended the fair to get more details on John Brown University’s degree completion program as he is interested in a bachelor’s degree in business, but has to work around a busy professional schedule.

JBU has about 500 students enrolled in its degree completion, according to Kent Shaffer, senior administrator for the Rogers Campus. He said that number has been fairly stable for past two to three years, but there is room for growth.

Smith said the American Community Survey in 2011, estimated 74,700 people age 25 or older live in Sebastian, Benton and Washington counties who have some college credit but no degree.

The potential student population for Graduate NWA breaks down like this:
Sebastian: 20,754
Benton: 28,173
Washington: 25,773

Mike Malone, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the initiative is a long-term process and there is ample room for improvement with the latest Census data showing roughly 27% of adults in Northwest Arkansas having a college degree. This figure is up from 25% a few years ago, but Malone said it’s still too low. He said one of the areas the region is lacking in compared to its peer regions is graduation attainment. Malone said employers here and those looking to locate here want to see an educated workforce because it’s key to the region’s long-term economic growth.

Shaffer said working adults are busy living their lives and many think returning to school is an “or” proposition as it’s a trade off for something else. He said the JBU degree completion plan is an “and “ proposition as it allows students to continue working and in some cases students get credit for training they received on the job.

John Moore, assistant director of transfers at the University of Arkansas, said most of the transfer candidates he sees fit the traditional student model. But the UA transfer requirement for students with more than 24 credit hours is a 2.0 GPA on all courses attempted.

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Amber Roth, transfer director at the UA, said the most important thing for a transfer student to do is seek the services onsite that can help streamline the process and help them with a roadmap that can include financial aid, alternative coursework such as online courses and help them get started.

Some 45 companies in Northwest Arkansas offer their employees tuition reimbursement, including Serco, the service administration firm new to Rogers with some 1,300 jobs.

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