LITTLE ROCK - The Higher Education Coordinating Board heard a disappointing report about the continuing decline in the number of Arkansas high school graduates who go on to college.
During a recent special meeting, staff from the state Higher Education Department reported that only 47.1% of the high school seniors who graduated in 2018 went on to a four-year university or a two-year college.
Elected officials, business leaders and educators have been working over the past several years to increase the number of Arkansas students who eventually earn a degree. A better-educated workforce makes Arkansas more attractive to industries that compete the best in the modern global economy.
For that reason, the relatively low college-going rate is a disappointment.
What makes the report even more alarming is that it continues a steady decline from 2014, when 51.6% of our high school graduates went on to college. In 2015 the number dropped to 50.9%. In 2016 it fell to 49.8% and in 2017 it fell again to 48.2%.
The enrollment decline is mainly attributable to trends at four-year universities. In 2014, the number of high school graduates who went to an Arkansas university was 31.9%, and that ratio has steadily declined to 28.7% last year.
The percentage of high school graduates moving on to study at a two-year college has gone up and down, but remained close to 16%.
The number going to a private or independent college has dropped slightly since 2014, from 3% to 2.4% of high school graduates.
It is difficult to make precise comparisons between the college-going rate in Arkansas and the national rate. That's because the Arkansas statistics don't include high school students from private schools, only students from public and charter schools. Also, it doesn't account for students who leave the state to attend college.
National averages, derived differently, report that about 67% of high school graduates go on to college. That trend has held steady for several years.
In the spring of 2018, Arkansas public high schools graduated 31,745 seniors, of whom 14,965 went to a college or university in Arkansas.
Of the almost 15,000 graduating high school seniors, almost 2,000 went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Almost 1,600 went to the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and almost 1,400 went to Arkansas Tech at Russellville.
About 1,100 graduating seniors enrolled at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, 768 enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and 643 at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. Another 555 of last year's high school graduating class enrolled at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.
Almost 900 went to Northwest Arkansas Community College and almost 600 enrolled at Arkansas State University at Beebe. Almost 500 went to the University of Arkansas Pulaski Tech.
Educators attributed some of the decline in college enrollment to the state's relatively healthy economy. When jobs are available, young people tend to go to work instead of to college. Conversely, during tough economic times, more people go back to school in order to improve their job skills.