University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Are Arkansas’ High School Graduates Prepared to Succeed in College?

In The View from the OEP on April 17, 2019 at 1:50 pm

Earlier this week, the Arkansas Department of Education released 2018 Report Cards for schools, districts, and the state (press release). Included in these data was information on the percentage of Arkansas students who graduate from high school, go to college, and earn college credits.

While college is not the right path for every Arkansas student, college degrees are increasingly valued by employers (Harvard Business School Report). Although there has been some recent pushback on employers’ degree requirements, to compete in tomorrow’s job market, Arkansas schools will need to prepare a large proportion of their students to succeed in college. Unfortunately, this is an area where Arkansas has some ground to make up. Only 22 percent of Arkansans age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, which is 9 percentage points below the national average (31%) with only Mississippi (21.3%) and West Virginia (19.9%) having  lower degree attainment (Census Bureau map).

Given our degree deficit and the priority the state has put on college readiness, we were eager to see if more of Arkansas’ students were hitting important milestones on the way to college graduation. We have written about this before (here and here), but at the time only three years of data were available. With yesterday’s release, we now have 5 years of data, but unfortunately, the story is not great.

There were, however, some encouraging signs in the data. For example, Arkansas students are graduating high school in greater numbers (see Figure 1). The state’s 4-year graduation rates inched up slightly, climbing to 89 percent in 2018. Minority students also saw increases over this period, with black students experiencing the biggest gains, increasing by 5 percentage points from 81 to 86 percent.

Figure 1: Arkansas 4-Year High School Graduation Rates 2014-2018

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Even though Arkansas’ students are graduating from high school at higher rates, they are not more likely to attend college (see Figure 2). The college going rate remained relatively flat over most of the 5-year period ending in 2018. However, if the recent data is to be trusted, college going rates declined by 8 percentage points in 2018. Such a large drop makes us question the validity of the 2018 data, but if accurate, this would be a huge deal that demands more discussion and monitoring.

***IMPORTANT NOTE:  ADHE confirmed to OEP that the college-going data are not correct and they are re-calculating the values. The initial re-calculation reflects a statewide college going rate consistent with prior years. *** We will update the analyses below with the new college-going data when released, but the general information still applies.  

Figure 2: Arkansas College Going Rate 2014-2018

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One important caveat about the state’s college going data is that the values only reflect students who attend a college in Arkansas. These rates miss Arkansas high school graduates who leave the state to pursue their post-secondary education, and so understate the state’s college going rate. The National Center for Educational Statistics produced a report in 2017 that can help us estimate by how much the rates are understated (see report here). In the fall of 2016, there were 3,318 Arkansas residents attending a college outside of the state. Assuming this number includes students who graduated at some point over the previous four years and dividing by the roughly 30,000 Arkansas high school graduates per year yields an estimate of approximately 3 percent for the percentage of Arkansas high school graduates in any given year attending college out of state. So our best guess as to how much Arkansas’ college going rate is underestimated is somewhere between 2.5 and 5 percentage points. The upshot is that even accounting for underestimation, Arkansas’ high school graduates enroll in college at far lower rates than the national average of 67 percent (

As we have done in previous blog posts, we can use the state’s data on graduation and college going rates along with the data on college credit completion to estimate how many of today’s 9th graders we can expect to get to college and earn at least one year of credits (figure 3). The picture is not encouraging. Of a group of 100 hypothetical 9th graders, we would expect 89 to graduate high school, 36 to enroll in college within the next year, and only 19 to complete one year’s worth of credits in the subsequent 2 years. So only 1 in 5 of today’s 9th graders would be expected to get to college and start down the path toward degree completion. And the story is worse for the state’s minority students.

Figure 3: Expected Education Attainment for Hypothetical 9th Grade Cohort

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Part of the challenge is that even once kids get to college, 63 percent of Arkansas’ high school graduates require remediation in one or more subjects. Remedial courses do not count toward degree completion, and can make persistence and degree completion seem out of reach.

College admission exams provide another measure of college readiness. All Arkansas high school students now take the ACT, and only 17 percent of 2018’s graduating class met the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in all four tested subjects (i.e., English, math, reading, and science; Arkansas ACT report). Missouri, which also requires students to take the ACT and is similar to Arkansas in terms of its rural/urban mix, performed significantly better, with 22 percent of 2018 graduates meeting the college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (Missouri ACT report). You can find a table summarizing states’ 2018 ACT performance here.

Although college readiness has been a priority for many years and the state’s institutions of higher education have been working to improve remediation and college persistence, it’s clear that we are not making fast enough progress. Arkansas is still far behind in college enrollment and degree completion, and we will need to redouble our efforts and try new strategies if we expect to compete on a global stage.

Note: If you want to dig into Arkansas’ graduation rate and college going rate data, the OEP website provides handy spreadsheets that stratify the data by district and school. You can find graduation rate here and college going rate here (the 2018 rate data table will be released after re-calculated data are released by ADE).

  1. I worked in both Arkansas and Missouri school districts. I felt the Arkansas districts were forced to put too much emphasis on the end of the year test. As a result, better students were held back and not challenged as much as they should have been while districts worked on bringing up test scores of bubble students.

    Also, the standards in Missouri were above grade level. A higher percentage of students scored proficient or higher on the Arkansas test than Missouri students did. But the test was easier in Arkansas. More than likely, the less rigorous standards in Arkansas has helped to reduce the number of students who are successful in college.

    • Hi Jerry-
      Thanks for your comment! It is difficult to compare performance between states because each state selects or develops their own assessment. Grade-level assessments may lead to focusing on moving the ‘bubble kids’ over the proficiency line, but with Arkansas’ new growth model every student’s academic improvement counts! You can see how the growth differs by student group on the report card site. Hopefully this move away from ‘proficiency’ will motivate teachers and school to value student learning for all kids!

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