Columns » John Brummett

Now let's consolidate colleges

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In everything but football, where we compete reasonably well considering the substandard coaching, Arkansas chooses to compound its problem of scarce resources by diminishing those resources and dissipating itself. That is to say - excepting, again, the Broyles Model for really important things - that we break our already little self into too many microscopic sub-selves. We keep open all these high schools, offering our children too many poor ones and not enough good ones. And this is the very point the nonathletic people from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville tiptoed around Tuesday when they unveiled in Little Rock a new report containing the central assertion that the state's priority in higher education should be funding, not access. Allow me to translate the caution-speak of academic bureaucrats: We have too many little two-year colleges that aren't any good and on which we squander money that we ought to amass in a bigger pot for the budding research institute in Fayetteville. Here's a category in which our state ranks near the top nationally: access to a post-secondary education institute. They tell me that, as a crow flies, an Arkansan's average distance from a higher education institution is 37 feet. (I'm exaggerating for effect; it's 9.5 miles, a third of the distance hundreds of people will run through Little Rock in a few days.) And here's a category where we rank near the bottom: student retention from year to year in college and eventual graduation from a four-year institution. Logic suggests that access doesn't mean quality. It even suggests that maybe we need to lose access in hopes of gaining quality. I've been down this road before. Several months ago I wrote about the dubious achievement of providing ready access to all these mushrooming two-year colleges with their own branches, not to mention the vocational schools that have become "technical colleges." My favorite example of diminishment and dissipation: Phillips County Community College in Helena has two branches, one in Stuttgart and the other in DeWitt. Dale Bumpers says one of his proudest gubernatorial accomplishments in 1971 was setting up a statewide system of two-year community colleges. But since then we've constructed entirely too much of a good thing. Arkansas now has 43 state-supported institutions of post-secondary, which is not to say higher, education. More that half the students entering these two-year colleges require remediation by which they get offered on a delayed basis the high school education denied them in high school. But maybe they're not getting it even then: Only 3 percent of students entering these two-year schools go on to get a four-year degree. I do not mean to denigrate all small-town two-year colleges, particularly those that serve a disadvantaged constituency and offer programs targeted to regional needs. But I do mean to denigrate an over-saturation of such places in a system that serves provincial politics instead of sound educational opportunity. The reason Fayetteville people tiptoe is that to say what they really mean would be to declare war on the static rural culture that bedeviled Gov. Mike Huckabee for the last year. And it would be to start a civil war within its own University of Arkansas System. Let me take you back a couple of paragraphs to the classic example of diminishment and dissipation: Phillips County Community College with its branches, or should we say twigs, in Stuttgart and DeWitt. That's part of the UA System. Those are sister institutions of the flagship in Fayetteville. This is a problem the UA could address internally, if only it would. Maybe the UA Board of Trustees should invite Broyles in to explain - again - why he won't play Arkansas State and why most games need to be in one home stadium rather than two.

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