Wanted: 160 college graduates for open jobs at Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other corporations across Northwest Arkansas.
That’s what Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson told a room full of media and higher education advocates Tuesday (Sept. 18) as the Northwest Arkansas Council unveiled Graduate NWA. This new program is the council’s latest effort to help elevate the region’s economic growth by increasing the number of college graduates that live here.
A comprehensive study commissioned by the NWA Council three years ago indicates the region lags behind their peers in college graduates. The number of residents in Northwest Arkansas age 25 or older with a college degree is roughly 25% of the total population. Other metro areas such as Omaha, Kansas City and Huntsville, Ala., all report more than 32% of their populations with a bachelor’s degree.
“We know if we don’t layer in higher education then all of the other efforts to grow our regional economy to the next level will go to waste,” Tyson said.
Graduate NWA seeks to recruit this 25% demographic of non-traditional students back into the classrooms, but higher education advocates know the biggest hurdle will be cost.
That demographic — non-traditional students — is also the one left out when it comes to the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship.
“The scholarship oversight committee has found that 41% of the original scholarship recipients are no longer active in the program. And they are looking at revamping the system to include non-traditional students in the future. I hope to see the legislature take this up and make the changes to include a wider student demographic,” said Dr. Becky Paneitz, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
She also encourages all students to be proactive in seeking out every possible funding source before they decide whether they can afford the costs.
NWACC is one of five higher education partners taking an active role in Graduate NWA, other schools include John Brown University, Northwest Technical Institute, University of Arkansas and UA for Medical Science NW.
The new program website — www.graduatenwa.com — is the first place prospective students should begin.
The site assigns each prospective student with educational liaison who can provide specific information on a wide range of topics from covering the costs, employers’ tuition assistance programs and juggling work, family and school.
John Brown III, says the program is needed to ramp up the region’s competitiveness on several levels, from attracting high-quality jobs, hoisting up the region’s median income levels and providing flagship employers and others a broad talent pool to grow their businesses as needed.
Brown chairs the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Educational Excellence Work Group, which included more than a dozen higher-ed advocates on top of the five locally-based institutions of higher learning.
Don Crandall, vice president of enrollment at John Brown University, said one way an institution may help the program reach its goal is with the degree completion program.
“It’s accelerated pace which lasts 18 months, the cost is less than standard tuition (at JBU) and it allows people with jobs to continue working because classes meet only one night a week. Some 41% of students get some type of aid and 80% of the students who start program graduate on time in 18-months,” Crandall said.
Phil Jones, with Nabholz Construction, says he knows first hand the value of completing a college degree years into a manufacturing career.
“Just as I finished my degree, the international manufacturing firm where I was employed sold the division I worked in. Suddenly, I found my degree was huge in helping me land a great job with a top notch firm,” Jones said.
His advice for those sitting on the fence is to remember, “it’s a journey, not a race and it takes time and patience.”