story by Ryan Saylor
Students interested in completing their degrees may now have an easier time finding not only a school, but also a degree program that fits their busy schedules following an announcement by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
The school announced Tuesday (April 23) that it has entered into a partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Education Consortium and its program, Graduate NWA, a website focused on helping northwest Arkansas residents with some academic credit complete their degree.
Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 19,329 residents of Sebastian County residents have some college credit, but no degree.
"Life happens," said UAFS Chancellor Paul Beran. "We understand that, but completion of the degree doesn't need to elude them forever."
According to Rob Smith, a communications and policy specialist with the Northwest Arkansas Council, UAFS and the five other schools in the consortium have discussed a partnership since February. Smith said the announcement is an outgrowth of work being done by groups in both Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas.
"There are places to work together and this is an easy one," he said. "Both of our regions are trying to increase the number of graduates we have. We have several people with credits, but no degrees."
Sam T. Sicard, president of First National Bank of Fort Smith and the chairman of the Fort Smith Regional Council, echoed Smith's sentiments. He said becoming a part of the consortium was beneficial to both students and the greater Fort Smith area.
"The Fort Smith Regional Council is focused on educational advancement and we think it's tied to economic development," Sicard said.
With a higher number of residents completing degrees, he said more businesses will see Fort Smith as a good fit as they seek to expand.
"If you're going to recruit higher-paying jobs to the region, (corporate site selectors are) going to look at your demographics," Sicard said. "It's not a positive when our area in the Fort Smith region has a degree completion rate well below the national average."
Beran cited a Georgetown University report that said 60% of all jobs "will be for people with some kind of college degree." Statistics like those, which Beran called "remarkable," are the reason why local business leaders and the administration of UAFS sought out the partnership.
While a better-educated workforce encourages growth and expansion of corporations into the region, Sicard said it also would benefit the region in other ways, encouraging more small business opportunities.
"These people that are well educated will be more successful entrepreneurs, more adept at starting a business and managing a business, so that's a benefit as well."
Beren said as the Fort Smith economy continues to evolve, it is more important than ever for former students to go back and finish their degrees.
"Recent plant closings and the uncertainty imposed by the changing mission of the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Fighter Wing push the need for people to reconsider their education," Beran said, adding that an increased number of college-educated residents benefits the entire state of Arkansas.
Sicard added that partnerships, such as the consortium, should be a statewide goal.
"This is a real opportunity for partnership between northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith and we have a lot of the same interests," he said. "What's good for northwest Arkansas is good for Fort Smith and vice versa. The way we partner with each other is advantageous for both of us."
With 7,337 students enrolled last fall, UAFS is the third largest school in the consortium behind the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Other schools in the consortium are John Brown University, Northwest Technical Institute and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest.