Editor’s note: Dr. Charles L. Welch, the author of this guest commentary, is the Arkansas State University System President.

As a native Arkansan, I am tired of hearing about our state being ranked near the bottom of national rankings in multiple categories. It is time for our state to make a bold and transformative move to achieve our full potential. Investing in our higher education system is a natural way to improve opportunities for our citizens and our entire state.

However, the transformation of Arkansas’s universities and colleges to increase the state’s intellectual talent pool requires a significant investment by state government and businesses.

The economics of a well-educated citizenry are clear: lifetime earnings are 84 percent more for a bachelor’s degree holder than a high school graduate. More university graduates also translate to more residents who are prepared intellectually to innovate, create jobs, educate, solve problems and provide critical leadership throughout Arkansas.

With very little additional investment from non-tuition resources, universities in Arkansas have done their part to improve efficiencies while growing enrollments and producing more graduates. Enrollment has grown 18.7 percent and degrees and credentials by 48.4 percent during the past five years, but state funding has increased by only 2.5 percent during this same time period.

Rarely can a business expand or meet changing customer needs without capital investment. How can our universities operate any differently?

Arkansas has invested over $6.4 billion into the K-12 secondary education system since the 2001 Lake View School District landmark case, and the result has been better national test scores, modernized learning facilities, and more competitive pay for teachers. I am proud of these K-12 advances and commend our policymakers on this visionary investment in the future of our young people. Just imagine what a similar investment could do for higher education.

Lawmakers in Connecticut recently approved a $1.5 billion capital construction expansion for the University of Connecticut for new science laboratories, classrooms and equipment. Beyond this capital investment, the state of Connecticut will also invest $137 million in operating funds to hire hundreds of new faculty and to expand the student body in STEM fields. Now that’s a transformational investment.

Arkansas has no dedicated capital funding for higher education, and that means no seed funding for major initiatives. When resources are available, universities receive a share of the General Improvement Fund. Capital project costs represent less than 6 percent of the ASU System’s budget. Most of our expenditures are on talented faculty and staff, and we’re typically the largest employers in our counties.

Historically, higher education institutions are the first to face state funding cuts and the last to receive new money. We were fortunate not to face the cuts suffered by other states during the Great Recession, but additional funding for higher education was severely limited. Gov. Mike Beebe, state Senate President Pro Tempore Michael Lamoureux, House Speaker Davy Carter, and other lawmakers showed commitment to higher education during the recent legislative session despite a lean budget, and we must build off of their commitment.

But long-term, our universities cannot — and should not — continue to make incremental improvements and try to stay competitive on the shoulders of students through continued tuition increases. The resolve shown for significant economic investments in secondary education and highways must also be demonstrated for our universities and colleges.

Two transformational initiatives at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro — development of a campus in Queretaro, Mexico, and a possible osteopathic medical school — are possible primarily because of private investments. The Mexico campus will create extraordinary international study opportunities for our students and lead to key relationships with multinational companies. The D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy Medicine) school would help the Delta fulfill the need for more primary care physicians in underserved areas. These are the kinds of investments that both state government and the private sector should embrace, initiate, and fund for universities.

Businesses in Arkansas are crucial partners and investors in higher education. Without increased intellectual talent in the workforce and higher per capita incomes generated by college graduates, we have no hope of hatching a new Fortune 500 company or increasing the tax base.

It seems like every time someone mentions higher education these days they are bemoaning the cost. We must consider higher education as an investment—an investment in the young person being educated, an investment in that student’s entire family, and an investment in the community where the student lives. Investors consistently seek an investment with a high return. I think we have proven time and again that a higher education degree is an investment with an immeasurably high rate of return.

Making additional investments in higher education will not be easy and must come at a time when other state entities also have pressing needs. However, research clearly shows that a more educated populace will result in lower health care costs, more high-tech, high-wage jobs, and a larger tax base. This would benefit us all through health care savings, lower unemployment, and more state revenue for worthy causes such as county and municipal aid, roads, and economic development initiatives.

It is time for Arkansas to make a significant investment in our colleges and universities. The very future of our state is at stake.

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