NWA editorial: A poor evaluation

Group’s criticism of UA based on limited look

Posted: November 3, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Sooner or later, someone's got to pay the bill.

That was our take away from the recent report from a Washington think tank called New America that used education data to demonstrate the University of Arkansas has shown a decline in the portion of lower-income students enrolled at its flagship campus in Fayetteville in the last 20 years. The number-crunchers showed that two-thirds of 32 schools they examined across the country showed similar results.

What’s the point?

Creating higher education opportunities for Arkansans of all means is important, but a recent study did little to shed meaningful light on the state’s higher ed system.

Our editorial board's response? Meh.

It's not that the plight of the poor is unimportant, or that administrators shouldn't pay attention to the opportunities their institutions create for people without the means traditionally necessary to pursue and be successful at higher education. No, our response is more along the lines of, well, what did you expect?

State legislators, including in Arkansas, aren't clamoring to provide any significant new funding for higher education institutions, so what's a school to do? Running a college or university hasn't gotten any cheaper, so administrators interested in maintaining or improving the education available at their institutions have limited options. There's philanthropy, certainly, but that can only go so far. So they also put considerable effort into recruiting students who can, yes, pay for their classes, books, dorms, etc.

It's a little like national health care, in which those folks called actuaries (who dreams of being one of those when they're kids?) explain that the system can't be sustainable if young, healthy workers aren't helping to pay for coverage at the same time as older and sicker people. As we all know, the bill eventually becomes due.

If the University of Arkansas and other schools over the last couple of decades hadn't gone out to recruit paying customers, what would these institutions look like? They certainly wouldn't be the robust campuses that are not just teaching but also creating new knowledge through research.

"Yes, we have increased the number of wealthy students on our campus. But it has allowed us to serve a larger number of students with need as well," said Suzanne McCray, UA's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions.

Do the Washington thinkers not understand these institutions of higher learning can't just sit on their hands as costs increase and state government contributions remain virtually static?

The UA attracted 27,558 students this fall. A decade ago, that number was down by nearly 10,000 students. It's no shame that the growth includes a healthy number of students who can afford to write a check when the tuition is due.

New America believes attracting students who can pay necessarily hurts those who struggle, but this isn't "Survivor," in which one tribe's gain almost always comes at the expense of another tribe.

And why just focus on the flagship campus in Arkansas? That creates a seriously incomplete picture of opportunities for higher education in Arkansas. Let's see: Arkansas is home to 10 four-year universities, 22 two-year colleges and 12 private colleges. From Arkansas State University to the University of Arkansas at Monticello to Northwest Arkansas Community College to Southern Arkansas University and many more, Arkansans are not hurting for choices, both geographically and economically speaking.

In broad terms, it's vital that state leaders and higher education administrators constantly evaluate their institutions' abilities to serve their state's population, and part of that is creating opportunities for people with limited means to join the pursuit of knowledge and degrees.

But is Arkansas coming up short in that regard? It's a valid question, and one that New America didn't satisfy.

Commentary on 11/03/2017