The University of Arkansas - Fort Smith announced April 23 that it accepted an invitation to join the Northwest Arkansas Education Consortium, a year-old organization focused on improving college graduation and retention rates.
UAFS becomes the sixth higher education institution working through the consortium to support Graduate NWA, a program and website focused on helping Arkansas residents with some academic credit finish college degrees.
Dr. Paul Beran, UAFS chancellor, is enthusiastic about what the Consortium can offer potential students.
“We are pleased to join forces with the Consortium in this cooperative effort,” said Beran, noting the importance of getting Arkansans who have dropped out of school “back in the game.”
“Life happens,” he said. “We understand that, but completion of the degree doesn’t need to elude them forever. The portal available through the Graduate NWA website provides these individuals with encouragement and decision-making information. It simply makes sense for UAFS to be part of this. It’s good for the citizens and communities we serve.”
The other members of the Northwest Arkansas Education Consortium (NAEC), which organized in January 2012, are John Brown University in Siloam Springs, NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences-Northwest in Fayetteville.
The consortium works with Graduate NWA, but it has other objectives such as improving student retention. It also worked with the University of Arkansas’ Office for Education Policy in 2012 to include higher education in the annual Northwest Arkansas Report Card that previously had focused only on K-12 education.
“Through the efforts of the Northwest Arkansas Council, five of our institutions decided that we could reach out to students who have some college and invite them to return to one of our campuses and finish a degree,” said Reed Greenwood, a University of Arkansas professor who serves as the consortium’s director and secretary. “It is critical that we reach across our traditional boundaries and welcome partners such as UAFS to extend our impact even further. This brings six higher education institutions together in an effort that will improve our entire region as well as enrich the lives of students.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Sebastian County, which includes Fort Smith, has 81,154 residents age 25 or over, and 19,329 residents of those residents (23.8 percent) have some college credit but no degree. About 21 percent of residents in Benton and Washington counties age 25 or over have college credit without a degree.
The three counties have a combined 73,697 people (25 or over) with college credit and no degree, the Census Bureau reports.
Graduate NWA launched in September 2012, and it’s intended to connect potential students with college and university employees focused on helping students return to the classroom. Those employees can answer questions about such things as which classes are needed to complete a degree; how to go about handling family, work and classroom responsibilities; and how to apply for scholarships and other financial assistance.
Having more people with college degrees living in a region makes it more attractive to expanding companies. In April 2010, Atlanta-based Market Street Services completed a Northwest Arkansas Competitive Assessment and determined the area trails peer regions in the percentage of residents with college degrees. More than 32 percent of people age 25 or over have at least a bachelor’s degree in some peer regions.
“Educational attainment levels are among the first indicators examined by site selectors who are seeking a workforce capable of supporting knowledge-intensive business activity,” the assessment reported.
Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the Council wants to work with Fort Smith leaders when opportunities arise. Joining the education consortium and becoming part of the Graduate NWA effort makes perfect sense, Malone said.
“We know from our own experience that economic success in northern and western Arkansas benefits the entire state, and we’re glad to see the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith partner with our region’s colleges and universities on this project,” Malone said.
Sam Sicard, the chairman of the Fort Smith Regional Council, said encouraging degree completion is one of the organization’s goals.
“We believe a more educated workforce and a higher degree completion rate will help us recruit industry to our area and it will lead to higher-paying jobs,” Sicard said. “We know site selectors who help companies find new locations look at that. Companies need to know that our community can provide the educated workforce they need.
"We know most areas with a higher percentage of their workforce with a degree have higher income and lower unemployment. That’s important in the Fort Smith area.”
With 7,337 students last fall, UAFS is the third largest member of the Northwest Arkansas Education Consortium behind the University of Arkansas and NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
Chancellor Beran noted that “Fort Smith is ripe for the tools available through Graduate NWA.”
“Recent plant closings and the uncertainty imposed by the changing mission of the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 188th Fighter Wing push the need for people to reconsider their education,” said Beran. Beran said it doesn’t matter whether it leads them to UAFS to complete their degree.
“Raising education levels across the state benefits all of us,” Beran said. “The Consortium will help accomplish that, and we proudly look forward to being part of this purpose.”