The University of Arkansas has moved substantially nearer its goals in the areas of academics and quality of incoming students, and has significantly improved its reputation among American colleges and universities. Enrollment has grown, though not as much as projected. Private support of the university has been “spectacular.”
But UA has not progressed toward its goal of greater diversity in the student body, and it has only held its own against comparable public universities in terms of state-government support per student. Despite other demands for state funds, such as those of court-ordered improvements in the public schools, the state must invest more in public higher education if it is to produce more college graduates. And it must produce more college graduates if it is to improve its economic lot.
These are among the findings in a report released this week by the University of Arkansas 2010 Commission. Formed in 2000 by UA Chancellor John White, the commission includes representatives of government, business and academe. The latest report, “Gaining Ground,” is the third issued by the commission.
Among the good news in the report:
• The six-year graduation rate for 2004 was 52.9 percent, the first time the rate has exceeded 50 percent since the figure has been tracked.
• In 2004, 83.7 percent of the previous year’s freshmen returned to campus for the new academic year, the highest freshman retention rate in the university’s history.
• UA ranked 12th among all public universities in the percentage of National Merit Scholars in its freshman class, and 24th in the number of freshman National Merit Scholars, ahead of much larger institutions such as Ilinois, LSU, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Penn State.
• For the first time in its history, UA was ranked among the nation’s top public universities — one of 64 so ranked — by U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges.” The Princeton Review’s “The Best 357 Colleges” (2005 edition) said that UA was one of the 20 “best bargains.”
On the not-quite-so bright side, enrollment for the fall of 2004 was 17,269, the largest in history, but less than the 18,509 projected. UA will have to pick up the pace to make its goal of 22,500 by 2010.
More disappointing was the decline in black enrollment — from 1,005 in 2003 to 981 in 2004. White has said that increased diversity in the student body is a top priority at the UA. The report discreetly did not mention that during former basketball coach Nolan Richardson’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the university, two members of the board of trustees testified that they still used the word “nigger.”
The report cited UA’s success in private fundraising (which included a $300 million gift from the Walton Foundation) and said that private fundraising was largely responsible for UA being included in the publication “The Top American Research Universities.” It did not discuss the fears of some taxpayers and faculty that large private donors will exert undue influence over UA policies and goals.
The report makes recommendations for the governor and legislature, for business leaders, and for the UA community. Recommendations for the governor and legislature include:
• Adopt the new college and university funding formula developed by the state Department of Higher Education. Nearly all the institutions are backing the formula. In the past, the institutions have sometimes lobbied against each other and other agencies for increased funding.
• Leverage private support by creating a dedicated state fund to match private gifts to endow professional chairs and academic programs and to construct academic buildings.
For business leaders:
• Pay nationally competitive salaries and provide competitive benefits for college graduates, to attract new talent to Arkansas and stem the exodus of outstanding native talent.
For the UA community:
• Provide leadership for the education systems in the state, private and public.