Northwest Arkansas' Marshallese work to send more of their own to college

Posted: November 23, 2017 at 1:06 a.m.

SPRINGDALE -- The Marshallese community is working to send more of its people into higher education.

Several families with roots in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands took part in a financial literacy course Wednesday, the first of many to be offered through a new program providing up to $200 each for college savings accounts for up to 200 of the community's children. The push joins the efforts of other Marshallese who for years have prodded young people to think about post-secondary schooling and how helpful it can be for them and others.

Lagging education

Pacific Islanders in Northwest Arkansas, who mostly hail from the Marshall Islands, lagged the region as a whole in educational attainment in 2015 census estimates, the latest year available for this particular group.

Highest education level;Islanders;Northwest Arkansas adults overall

Less than a high school diploma or equivalent;27 percent;15 percent

Diploma or equivalent;52 percent;30 percent

Some college or an associate’s degree;19 percent;26 percent

Bachelor’s or higher;3 percent;29 percent

Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey 5-year estimates

About 60 children have had the accounts set up on their behalf so far, and 20 or so parents and kids were at Wednesday's lesson on buying a car. The class included information useful for people of any background, such as how different types of car insurance work and why drivers should get an oil change every several thousand miles.

It was nothing new for Morda Netwon, who already owns her car. But she plans to attend future classes and has signed up three of her four children through the program for 529 accounts, a type of college savings account that's open to any family and can lower income taxes based on how much the family saves. The fourth child, her oldest, is already at the University of Arkansas studying to become a teacher.

"In the long run, it's going to help," said Netwon, who wasn't aware of 529 accounts before the program started. "Next year I'm going to have two in college, and I'm thinking, how am I going to pay for that?"

The Marshallese number 12,000 or more in Northwest Arkansas, according to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. They're free to work and travel in the U.S. without visas under a treaty between the United States and their islands, and most Marshallese adults living in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area work in food production, according to census estimates.

Dozens of American nuclear-weapon tests in the Marshall Islands after World War II, poverty there and relatively low-paying work here have left much of the community with low incomes and widespread health issues that further drain their resources. Census surveys found Islanders' median household income in Northwest Arkansas between 2010 and 2015 was about $31,000, a third less than the region's overall.

The community as a result has made slow progress in education. About half have completed high school but only 3 percent have a bachelor's degree, roughly one-tenth the region's rate.

Benetick Maddison is working toward joining the latter group. He's a second-year student at Northwest Arkansas Community College and plans to complete his bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Arkansas. After that, he hopes to go into politics back on the islands, where he lived until he was 6.

Maddison has wanted to go to college since joining student government in middle school, he said, adding education was a big reason his family moved to the States 16 years ago. Federal student aid has covered all of cost so far.

"My parents want us to finish college and live a better life and give back to our people," he said.

United Way, Little Rock's Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Marshallese leaders and others worked together earlier this year to offer the 529 contribution and literacy program. Arkansans' 529 accounts can be used for universities, community colleges and technical schools in the state and around the country.

The financial literacy classes are set through early 2019 and will cover such topics as banking, homeownership and credit, said Janet Wills, a consultant with the agency who developed the curriculum. University of Arkansas social work professors will track how helpful the program ends up being.

Northwest Arkansas Marshallese leaders have long encouraged the college path, particularly to get Marshallese health care providers in hospitals and clinics and help chip away at the diabetes, high blood pressure and other issues plaguing the group. Dr. Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese family physician, joined the medical university last year and has urged high school students and young adults to stick with school no matter how challenging.

When Maddison's not at school, he works as a part-time community health worker at the medical university's North Street Clinic, which is free for uninsured Marshallese with diabetes, and leads the Marshallese College Student Association. The group started in 2014, counts about 30 Northwest Arkansas members and has helped 15 or so people apply for college and financial aid. Maddison held the fourth sign-up session earlier this month at the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese office.

Maddison's pitch is simple: Consider 12-hour shifts in a chicken plant versus jobs with more usual hours and higher pay that often need some kind of training or schooling beyond high school.

"It encourages them to, you know, not stick with the status quo," he said.

Netwon has an associate's degree and is working on a bachelor's in criminal justice, and her mother was college-educated as well. She said getting a higher education is less common among Marshallese in the U.S. than back home, likely because it costs much more and many islanders don't know where or how to find financial grants and loans.

"It's always been important in my family," Netwon said.

NW News on 11/23/2017