More improvement needed now in Arkansas
For years now, our state’s leaders in multiple fields of expertise have called for more Arkansans to earn college degrees. In 2011, I urged our State to meet a tangible goal: to double the number of Arkansans graduating with a four-year degree. We have made progress, but we need to accelerate that progress to ensure that more Arkansans can take advantages of opportunities before them.
The latest figures show that one in five Arkansans 25 years of age or older has a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is a noticeable improvement from the early 1990s, when only one in eight Arkansans held such degrees. Education policy changes, dedicated instructors and a change in Arkansas’s collective mind-set made this happen. However, it needs to happen more.
While Arkansas has seen improvements, other states have also increased their respective rates. In fact, despite our progress, Arkansas still ranks 49th nationally in adults with college degrees. Eleven states now have rates of 30 percent or higher, and most have rates of at least 25 percent. I have said repeatedly that this is the area of education that warrants a particularly sharp focus in the coming years. We need to further improve our rate of degrees, not just to stay competitive with other states, but to make sure we don’t miss a huge opportunity on the horizon.
By the year 2025 - the same year I want to have doubled our graduation rate - the United States is projected to reach a shortfall of nearly 24 million degree-holders. According to a report from The Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, that shortage amounts to $600 billion in lost wages. This means that any student who begins fifth grade in Arkansas this fall and earns a college degree would enter a very favorable job market, along with any other Arkansan who did the same.
Over the years, we have increased the state’s investment in education and made significant advancements. We have implemented innovative programs in curriculum. We’ve enticed students with scholarships, and we’ve rewarded teachers who have outstanding success in their classrooms. Affordable college worker-training programs are an incentive for businesses looking to relocate to Arkansas. Our growing emphasis in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM fields, will prepare more students for emerging fields of employment. We will continue to do all of these things and more.
What we need, perhaps more than anything, is for more Arkansans, from all walks of life, to advocate for postsecondary education. More Arkansans can earn degrees and leave campus confident that good careers await them in the 21st-century economy. The more we diversify and enhance the skill-sets of our people, the better chance we have to attract more high-paying jobs and change our state’s path forever. With commitment, encouragement and support, our children will realize, as I have personally, that anything is possible with a well-rounded and complete education.