Three groups are working on ways to improve the state-supported colleges in Arkansas - a blue-ribbon group of businessmen appointed by Governor Huckabee and led by Phil Ford of West Memphis, a University of Arkansas at Fayetteville commission and a legislative committee headed by Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway and Rep. Phillip Jacobs of Clarksville.
Quite properly, the Fayetteville group's main desire is more money to enlarge the state's only research university. It said last week that the UA needed an appropriation of at least $115 million but instead it got only $93 million. Anybody would agree that research in these high-tech days is vital to a state, but we could have done without UA Chancellor John White saying at the meeting, "We need to be competitive academically with the same institutions we compete against athletically."
Here are some reasons why the colleges need help.
Only 18.3 percent of Arkansans hold a bachelor's degree while the national average is 27 percent. Thousands go to the state's colleges who never graduate. Only West Virginia has fewer college graduates than Arkansas. Today's businesses want educated young men and women, and, according to what Scott Ford of Alltel, a blue-ribbon member, told the Democrat-Gazette, this is why no corporate headquarters has decided to make its home in Arkansas in 40 years.
Dr. Robert Brown, the feisty president of Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, is discouraged because he says that the state gives all the colleges approximately the same amount of money every two years. The result is that colleges like his suffer because they are growing in enrollment, requiring more of everything including faculty. The per-student appropriation for Arkansas Tech last year was less than the money given to several two-year colleges and even Russellville High School.
The Department of Higher Education funding formula called for more for Tech because for the last five years it has grown in enrollment and ranks second in the number of graduates, but legislators ignored that in order to keep all the colleges happy. "They [the legislators] should follow the colleges' accomplishments, not politics," Brown says.
Many people like Chancellor White, Sen. David Bisbee of Rogers and some journalists like me think Arkansas has too many colleges. Bisbee likes to say that Iowa, which is about Arkansas' size, has only three four-year colleges while Arkansas has 11, and their graduation rates aren't good. University of Central Arkansas in Conway has the best rate of 49. but it drops as low as 24 percent at some colleges. There are 22 two-year colleges, some of them only a few miles apart.
But when numbers are mentioned, Ed Franklin, the leader of the Association of Two-Year Colleges, always wants to know how we can have too many colleges when there are still 20,000 fewer college students in Arkansas than there are in states like Missouri and Mississippi. At this point, others speak up and say the fault is not with the colleges but the K-12 schools because they neither encourage nor equip youngsters to get a college degree.
Probably the truth here is that fewer parents in Arkansas have the money to send their kids to college with the cost of tuition rising 14 percent a year. Governments ought to be solving this problem like so many other countries are doing. Latin American governments are giving stipends - not loans -- to poor families so they can send kids to college. Eleven million families in Brazil and 20 million in Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua have gotten the stipends. The Wall Street Journal says China is graduating more than twice the number of Americans. India's government pays the cost of graduating a million more students than the U.S. yearly, including 100,000 more scientists and 60,000 more engineers.
So what can Arkansas legislators do to improve higher education and turn out more college graduates? Will they do it by eliminating some of the state's colleges? No, and neither will they raise taxes any time soon after just passing the largest tax increase in the state's history for the public schools. .
But there are things they could do: Remove the politics from funding higher education by passing a law requiring the legislature to approve the funding of the colleges every two years as proposed by the Department of Higher Education, making changes only after a three-fourth majority vote in both houses. After all, the department has experts to design the formula to meet the colleges' needs. Legislators who meet every two years have neither the time, the skill nor the universality to decide how much money each college should receive.
Then the legislature should try to pass an amendment to the constitution to do what so many other states have done - give Arkansas a lottery. Also that amendment or a separate one should be voted on to allow the two race tracks operating in West Memphis and Hot Springs to also have gambling devices, and all the state's take should go the state's colleges. Remember that polls last year showed that 62 percent of Arkansans wanted a lottery and in 2000, 46 percent okayed lotteries, bingo and casinos. It could produce $100 million for higher education. Thirty-eight states have lotteries and 29 have casinos, including the five states that surround us, so why should we just furnish their customers?
It's time the people living in the counties and cities that house these colleges and benefit from them help to improve them. Rich people ought to start giving money for academic scholarships instead of football. The North Little Rock Rotary Club, hardly a center of wealth, gives $1,500 scholarships to 12 kids every year who otherwise couldn't go to college. Why not a pass a small sales tax, or an increase in property taxes? For years, the citizens of Fort Smith and Sebastian County have been paying taxes that cover about one-fourth of the expenses of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. That's a precedent worth following.