Friday, August 10, 2007

Treading water

Increasingly we hear that a college degree is the new high school diploma -- that, in other words, it's the minimum required to have a shot at a decent career and the American dream. And certainly, the population that expects to go to college has drastically expanded since World War II, for many interesting reasons (including the increase in university capacity prompted by the influx of G.I. Billers).

But here at UCA, we're reminded by the university president at every graduation how far we are from making bachelor's degrees the new normal. At last count (just a week ago), 19% of Arkansas adults older than 25 have a college degree, placing the state 49th in the nation in this measure, ahead of only West Virginia (at nearly 16%).

It's hard to imagine that collegiate education could be considered the new baseline in a state where 80% of adults past the traditional college age are making do with a high school education. And it's a sobering reminder of how far from the mainstream higher education is in this state, a fact that counsels vigilance in the fight to position the state's colleges as a funding priority. Although over 60% of high school graduates in the state now go to college, a rate that has shown a marked and continuous increase in the past decade and now is about equivalent to the nationwide measure, it's easy to see how many of them are first-generation college students -- and therefore how much more difficult it is going to be for them to succeed, not having been raised in a culture where higher education is taken for granted. I know that many of those students on the margins are the ones who enter under a remedial program and find themselves out of school before they know it, their few semesters of tuition having long since disappeared into the maw of the billing office.

Congratulations to the summer 2007 graduates of UCA, whose commencement ceremony I just attended. They deserve it. An undergraduate degree in this state still constitutes bucking the odds.

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