Arkansas should move to more need-based scholarships, legislators told

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 66 views 

Arkansas should move to more need-based state scholarships instead of relying mostly on scholarships based on merit, a report by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education says.

Speaking to the House and Senate Education Committees today, Dr. Bret Powell, ADHE director, said almost 94% of the state’s college scholarships are based on merit thanks largely to the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program. The national average is 75% need-based. Only two states and Washington, D.C., have lower percentages of need-based scholarships. 

Powell was speaking about a report, “Closing the Gap,” approved Friday by the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a body that represents the leaders of the state’s higher education institutions. Increasing the percentage of need-based scholarships to 25% would make college more affordable for underserved Arkansans, the report said.

The state has a gap of 235,764 students with post-high school credentials. To address the gap, the report includes goals for increasing the state’s percentage of post-secondary credentials awarded by 40% over 2013-14 levels – from a total of 34,434 bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, and career and technical certificates that year to 48,260 in 2019-20.

The report calls for increasing the number of career and technical certificates awarded in 2019-20 by 61% to 16,880. Associate’s degrees would be slated to increase by 36% to 11,860, while bachelor’s degrees would need to increase by 28% to 19,520.

Of the state’s adult population, 13.8% hold a bachelor’s degree, while 7.1% has a master’s degree or higher.

The goals listed by “Closing the Gap” include raising completion and graduation rates of colleges and universities by 10%; increasing the enrollment of adult students ages 25-54 by 50% by the fall of 2018; raising the attainment rates of underserved student groups by 10%; and improving college affordability through better resource allocation. 

As part of that last goal, the state should adopt an outcomes-based funding model where institutions are funded based on meeting goals outlined in the plan. Under the current model, colleges and universities receive 90% of their funding based on enrollment and 10% based on performance measures that rely on penalty-heavy, all-or-nothing scenarios. Powell said the new model should be based on positive incentives. 

Powell said the state’s higher education institutions are underfunded, making it too risky to innovate. He suggested setting aside funding to allow institutions to take more risks.

Arkansas ranks 15th out of the 16 states served by the Southern Regional Education Board in students obtaining a degree after six years. Among the issues affecting college completion is rising costs. Tuition and fees at Arkansas’ colleges and universities increased from fall 2009 to fall 2014 by an average of 25% for four-year institutions and 32% for two-year institutions, the report said.

Remediation is another reason for students not completing college. In 2014, 67.2% of community college students and 28.8% of university students required remediation. Those numbers have fallen since the fall of 2010, but 26.5% of students in the fall 2014 semester needed remediation in three subjects – math, English and reading, and more than 75% of adult students at four-year institutions and more than 80% of students at two-year institutions required remediation. Among the report’s suggestions: Create more appropriate alternatives to gateway courses such as college algebra.

Powell said work groups will spend the next six months studying various areas of higher education to find programs that are working. For example, the Southwest Prep Academy at Henderson State University works with students starting in the ninth grade who have the desire and the ability to go to college but are not prepared. Another question to be asked is whether adult students could be given credit for work experience, reducing the amount of time it takes them to get a degree.

Powell said in an interview after the meeting that colleges could consider doing away with the credit hour and advancing students based on their knowledge and skills. He said the credit hour “kind of happened by mistake many years ago. It was tied to some things that really don’t have anything to do with student learning, but it stuck, and so now everything is built around the credit hour.”