University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Arkansas’ College Degree Reality Gap

In The View from the OEP on March 4, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Lately, we have been thinking about Arkansas students that are nearing the end of high school. Many students across Arkansas are taking the ACT exam, deciding on which college they will attend, working through financial aid documents, and looking forward to heading out into the rest of their life.  According data reported by ACT, 70% of Arkansas students from the class of 2019 indicated that they wanted to obtain a bachelor’s (BA) degree or higher. This high rate of post-secondary aspiration is actually a decline from the class of 2017, in which 75% of students intended to get a BA or higher degree.

But the reality is, based on current data and prior trends, only 11% of Arkansas high school graduates will obtain a bachelor’s degree within 6 years of their high school graduation.

And, although Hispanic and African American students also report high levels of post-secondary aspirations, the likelihood of getting a degree decreases for these students. Hispanic students from the class of 2017 reported a 72% aspiration rate for a BA or higher, but only 6% are projected to meet that goal.  African American students are the least likely to get a BA, with only 5% of students obtaining one, although 70% of African America students reported that aspiration.

Figure 1 represents the number of students in the class of 2017 progressing through stages from high school to a 4-year college.  All calculations are based on a kindergarten “class” of 20 to ease interpretation.

Figure 1. College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students (4-year institutions)

4year

Step 1. High school graduation: A high percentage of students graduate from Arkansas’ high schools, with 17.6 of a typical kindergarten class of 20 graduating high school in four years (88%).  High school graduation rates are somewhat lower for Hispanic and African American students, with 17.1 and 16.7 of 20 students graduating, respectively (85.7 and 83.4%). Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 2. Post-Secondary Aspirations: Between 15 and 14 of 20 high school students report aspiring to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher. Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 3. College-Going: Four-year college-going rates differ for the groups examined.  Out of the initial 20 student “class”, 5.6 students attend overall (48.2% of high school graduates).  Hispanic students had the lowest percentage of students attending a 4-year college with only 3.6 of the initial 20 students (39.5% of high school graduates).  African American students attended 4-year schools at a rate of 4.7 (40.3% of high school graduates). Source: Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Step 4. Persistence: The percentage of college-going students that return for the second year of college is isn’t reported by student population, so we use the overall value reported in the recently released ACT report.  85% of students from the Class of 2017 persisted in year 2 at the in-state 4-year institutions.  Source: ACT High School to College Success Report – class of 2017-18 Freshman

Step 5. Completion: While many of us think of “4-year institutions” as taking 4 years to graduate from, colleges generally report a 150% (6 year) completion rate. The class of 2017 hasn’t had time to complete their degree, so we use the most recent data available to project their completion rates. The overall rate of 6 year completion was 45.8% for most recent cohort (started in 2013). The Hispanic student rate was 39.5% and African American completion rate was 25.6% (both for the cohort that started in 2012). Source: ADHE Comprehensive Reports.

As presented in Figure 1, a high percentage of students graduate from high school, with 17.6 of a typical kindergarten class of 20 graduating high school in four years.  High school graduation rates are somewhat lower for Hispanic and African American students, with 17.1 and 16.7 of 20 students graduating, respectively.  Between 15 and 14 high school students report aspiring to obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher, but 4-year college-going rates differ for the groups.  Out of the initial 20 student “class”, 5.6 students attend overall, Hispanic students had the lowest percentage of students attending a 4-year college with only 3.6 of the initial 20 students.  African American students attended 4-year schools at a rate of 4.7 students.  The majority of students return for the second year of school, but then fail to complete their degree within six years.  Out of the initial 20 students in the “class”, just 2.2 students in the overall population, 1.2 Hispanic students, and 1 African American student are projected to obtain their degree in 6 years.

We know that 4-year college isn’t everyone’s goal, but there are A LOT of students that report wanting to get a degree.  We highlight the gap between the aspirations and the (projected) reality of getting a degree. For the Class of 2017, the difference between students that aspired to obtain a BA degree and those that actually do would be over 22,000 students.

Figure 2.  Four-Year College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students, difference between aspirations and projected degree completion highlighted

4year gap

We also examined the trends in 2-year college enrollment, based on the same 20 student kindergarten “class”.  High school graduation rates remain, but we can see that a much smaller percentage of students report aspiring to an associate’s degree or Voc/Tech training.  In fact, overall and for Hispanic and African American students, more students attend a 2-year school than had indicated that they wanted to, but the rates are very low. Note that Hispanic students are more likely to attend a two-year college than their peers, and are more likely to persist and obtain a 2-year degree in 3 years.

Figure 2.  Two-Year College Completion Pipeline for the Class of 2017, for All Students, Hispanic Students, and African American Students

2year


We have previously raised this issue of low college completion for Arkansas students (in 2016,  2017, and  2019), and increasing the percentage of Arkansas residents with a BA is an important driver for economic development in the state.  Over three years ago we wrote about the Closing the Gap 2020 strategic plan from Arkansas Department of Higher Education.  There have been increases in credentials awarded since the plan was implemented, but the increases are only about 1/10th of the targets identified in the report.  The new funding formula for higher education institutions rewards completion (instead of just enrollment), and early reports indicate that the funding formula may be contributing to increasing the 4-year completion rate. Hooray!

Arkansas Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is providing additional resources to support students’ success while still in high school. The ADE is providing a College and Career Readiness Tool (CCR Tool) for Arkansas students in grades 8-12. Schools can select a provider from the approved list. We recommend that schools use these resources and that the state evaluate their effectiveness.  We need to know if the tools DESE is providing are helping students develop and achieve their goals.

We look forward to greater collaboration and communication between higher education and K-12.  We think that the more information a school has about its students, the better it can serve them. We think more integration between of these systems will lead to better outcomes for Arkansas students.

As students are looking toward to their next steps, we feel like they need to understand the obstacles that they may face in pursuit of a degree.  Parents and school personnel should discuss these challenges, but it would likely be more instructive to have students from the community who went to college (and did/ didn’t complete) share about their experience, challenges, and successes.  As shown by KIPP, Arkansas high schools can do more to support their students through college transition. Education doesn’t stop at graduation. We should do all we can to help students meet their aspirations!

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