Arkansas Toothpick: The Cutting Edge of Academic Reform

Peter Wood

Back in the days of riverboat gamblers, a well-equipped player kept insurance against a streak of bad luck. The gambler carried an Arkansas toothpick in his boot—which was not a device for dental hygiene but a heavy two-edged dagger.  It could cut more than cards and might help him recoup some losses at the table.

Last year, the state of Arkansas got tired of ranking 49th among states in the percentage of adults who hold bachelor degrees.  Out came the legislative equivalent of the Arkansas toothpick. The legislature decided to make it a little easier for Arkansans to get that degree.  Act 182 provided a pointed incentive for the state’s colleges and universities to increase their graduation rates.

They limited the number of course requirements at state colleges and universities. This should make it easier for students to graduate, but the main thrust of the bill is to lower the barriers for students who seek to transfer into four-year colleges after completing their associate degrees at Arkansas at any of the state’s 23 community colleges.  Graduates of community colleges often find that their first two-years of study fail to match up with the curricular requirements at four-year institutions.  This makes it hard for them to transfer or, if they do succeed in transferring, they find themselves overburdened with course requirements. 

Arkansas’ action hits a national nerve. In the last two years, college completion rates have become one of the hottest topics in higher education.  President Obama has announced a goal of making America the nation with the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. Part of his program is to increase college graduation rates and in February 2009 he proposed $2.5 billion for that effort.  Attaining that goal would require more than a doubling in the size of current enrollments, partly because only about 57 percent of students who start four-year colleges actually complete bachelor degrees within six years.  Completion rates at two-year colleges are even lower: about 31 percent. 

These low degree completion rates have been widely discussed as a problem—not just in reaching President Obama’s goal but for the students who fall by the wayside, often with significant debt and no credential to show for their efforts, and for the nation, which would seem to be squandering its capital on educational programs that have poor rates of return.  In 2009, the American Enterprise Institute issued a report, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their students (and Which Don’t), which examined graduation rates at 1,300 institutions.  AEI documented large disparities from “rock-bottom graduation numbers” (under 20 percent) at places such as Texas Southern University and Northeastern Illinois University, all the way to Harvard University’s 97 percent completion rate. 

AEI took care at the time to say that low graduation rates are not necessarily bad.  After all, they may reflect the interplay of high standards and mobile students.  A newer AEI report, however, seems to take a different tack. In Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic College Graduation Rates as a National Priority, Andrew Kelly, Mark Schneider, and Kevin Carey promote the idea that federally designated Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)—a designation needed to tap into federal Title V funds—should be judged not just on the percentage of Hispanics who enroll, but also on Hispanic completion rates. 

AEI thus seems to be catching up to a great many other observers who look at the graduation rates with dismay.  Last year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with AT&T, Capital One, and NYSE Euronext launched a project called “Get Schooled” that aims to put more children on track to complete high school and college. 

A research paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research registered the national decline in college completion rates from the 1970s to the 1990s.  A higher percentage of high school graduates enrolled in college, but the influx in enrollments was accompanied by a rapid increase in college dropouts.  Common sense suggests that the increase in students who start college includes many who aren’t academically prepared or sufficiently talented to succeed.   The authors of the NBER report agree this is a factor, but also blame the colleges—particularly community colleges and less-selective public four-year institutions. 

In April, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) took up the challenge. With help again from the Gates Foundation, ACCT partnered with the University of Texas at Austin’s Community College Leadership Program to create the Governance Institute for Student Success.  This Institute aims to “increase community college completion rates.”       

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, spoke at the “Clinton Global Initiative University” at a meeting in Miami last month reiterating his Foundation’s commitment to “increasing college completion rates.” 

In short, the theme of increasing college completion rates is attracting lots of attention these days.  Arkansas is not alone in worrying about those rates, but it has taken a somewhat unusual step to increase them.  Under its new rules, Arkansas is requiring at least one state university that has substantial course requirements to whittle them down.  The University of Arkansas has long had fairly strenuous general education requirements:  66 hours of general education out of a total of 124 total hours for an undergraduate degree.  Complying with the new law, Act 182, the university has cut its general education requirements to 35 hours.  The change eliminates the undergraduate language requirement and thins out the science requirement

The streamlining of general education requirements at the University of Arkansas prompted the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) president Anne Neal to write to the chairman of the UA board to remonstrate.  ACTA had previously highlighted UA’s general education requirements as exemplary.  Neal points out that UA could have complied with Act 182 by easing the path for community college transfer students without gutting its general education requirements.  Neal also published an op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette amplifying her critique. 

Possibly it was time for the university to take another look at its graduation requirements, but we think ACTA has made a pretty good point. 

However, we also see this degree deflation as part of the much larger story.  Since World War II, American higher education has been on the path towards becoming a form of low-standard mass-credentialing.  The world of colleges and universities retains a narrow band of highly-selective, curricularly-demanding institutions, but these account for a few tens of thousands of the more than 18 million students who enroll each year.   The institutions that serve the great majority of students tend to be much more concerned with quantity than quality.  Indeed, there are many excellent programs to be found in state institutions and not-especially-distinguished private colleges.  But on the whole they are shaped by the realities of public policy, the existing structures of higher education finance, and the public belief that a college degree is a prerequisite for a decent job. 

These factors work together to exert a downward force on academic standards.  When it comes to a choice between sticking with tough standards and marketing to less talented students, American higher education has a hard time remembering why those standards really matter.  In that light, the University of Arkansas’ decision is no surprise.  It is just what colleges and universities do these days—though the nudge from the state legislature no doubt helped. 

We are entering a period in which this long historical trend looks as if it is about to reach its culminating phase.  If President Obama, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation,  and the numerous eager government officials, corporate leaders, and non-profit advocates have their way, higher education will have to shed what little it has left of its commitment to high academic standards.  Of course, the advocates of send-nearly-everyone to college deny this.  President Obama has as one of his standard tropes, a warning against “false choices.”  But can we have academic excellence and mass production of college graduates at the same time?

We don’t think that’s a “false choice.”  It is a real choice.  Perhaps there is a good argument for the mass production side—though it is very hard to hear anyone actually making it.  Instead we are incessantly reminded that individuals who earn a college degree on average earn a lot more money than those whose education falls short of this benchmark, and that national competitiveness increasingly depends on our having a highly educated workforce.  These are both non sequiturs.   Individuals who are knowledgeable, well-educated, and personally disciplined often excel and nations need their talents, but those attainments aren’t contained in a college degree.

Despite the loud proclamations in favor of mass higher education, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical that college-for-everyone is the answer.  Last week, the skepticism achieved a benchmark of its own, when Jacques Steinberg presented a front-page New York Times story, Plan B: Skip College, which gave serious attention to some of the dissenters.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is beginning to seep into our national consciousness.  College may not be the best answer for every ambitious teenager and higher attendance and completion rates may not be the panacea for an ailing economy.  A nation that piles on years of expensive remedial work to the time already forfeited to ineffective K-12 education is a nation digging itself further into a hole.

As for Arkansas, its flagship university used to stand apart. Having more demanding general education requirements than is typical of American higher education today was a genuine distinction.  Cutting those requirements down may well make it easier to enroll larger numbers of marginally qualified students, and that in turn would seem to put the state and the university in the mainstream of an increasingly shallow river.   The truth about the Arkansas toothpick is that a good gambler doesn’t need one.   

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