According to Census Bureau statistics, Arkansas ranks 50th among the states in the percentage of residents older than 25 with a bachelor's degree.
Arkansas's perpetually low position in national education statistics is among our worst problems both in terms of perception and economics. Employers and business people look at these statistics not only to determine where to make investments, but also to gauge where they themselves want to live and raise their families.
Our low standing reinforces damaging stereotypes. It wasn't until I began spending time away from home that I truly learned how widespread and widely-believed these stereotypes are. During my time as staff in the United States Senate I met and came to know people from every nook and cranny in the country. It still surprises me to recall how people denigrated, to my face, the state I was there to represent.
Recently I spoke at a conference of tax professionals in Atlanta. After my presentation, one of those in attendance went out of his way to suggest that I had overcome a burden, being that I was from Arkansas, by attaining three degrees and being able to give a good talk. Rather than the thanks he expected, I informed him that, though statistically undereducated, none of the people of Arkansas were stupid enough to make such an utterance. Less than a month before this incident, a member of Congress representing a plains state made a similar comment to me. When I was introduced to him he suggested that my language was more refined than my accent, but that that was a “good start” for an Arkansan.
While it would be easy to shrug it off as ignorance, it is in our best interest to work to change the stereotype. Why are we at the bottom of the statistical barrel? It isn't that we lack brains. What we lack are resources.
The best way to change the statistics is to make sure that every Arkansan who wants a college degree has the resources to get one.
In 2006, I announced my candidacy for Arkansas state treasurer against the backdrop of my alma mater, the University of Arkansas College of Agriculture. As I said at the time, I chose that location because I wanted to show my gratitude to the people of Arkansas for the investment they had made in me in the form of scholarships and a state subsidized college education.
I also chose that spot because I hoped to make the issue of college savings central to the treasurer's race.
I believe that most Arkansans don't seek higher education because they can't afford it. Many people simply cannot forgo a paying job, and put down a good chunk of cash besides, to spend four years in the classroom. Many Arkansas families are trapped in a cycle of financial stress that makes it impossible for them to get ahead generation after generation.
I proposed that every child born in the state be automatically enrolled in a tax-advantaged 529 College Savings Plan. If every child were enrolled, and the state made contribution matches, by the time a child was ready for college he would hopefully have an account of enough size to change the math in favor of at least a few years of college. If the program was statewide, financial institutions could justify marketing to attract the accounts and competition for the long-term deposits would ensure higher rates of return.
Communities, businesses, churches, foundations and individuals could also be encouraged to support and personalize the efforts by establishing tax-advantaged contribution or matching programs. The El Dorado Promise program has become a model for community and corporate partnership. It will no doubt help El Dorado grow and prosper over the long term.
It is time for our elected officials to ensure that every advantage is given to the El Dorado Promise program and that the legal and financial infrastructure is in place that would make it easier for other communities to replicate their efforts.
Imagine a state where a child is born and is automatically vested in a college savings program. Imagine if that child's church helped raise the initial deposit needed to obtain a state match. Imagine the competition between civic-minded banks and brokers trying to offer the best program with the highest yields. Imagine corporate and community partnerships designed to build the workforce and economy of Arkansas. Imagine a stronger Arkansas.
If you are proud of the Arkansas, call your state legislators today. Talk to your friends. If 18 years from tomorrow our state is climbing up the ladder of college statistics, climbing away from generational poverty, and climbing in national esteem, you will have yourself to thank.
Mac Campbell is a seventh-generation Arkansan living in Little Rock and Washington, D.C. He is a partner of the law firm McKenna Long and Aldridge.