Higher education stats need better analysis

On Sunday, Oct. 8, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article titled "State college enrollment sees another decline." A major portion of the information contained in the article was supplied by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. That information is, at best, virtually worthless, and at its worst could mislead those who waded through almost six columns of verbiage.

Foremost, many of the students enrolled in Arkansas' higher institutions come from other states. The Arkansas Department of Higher Education should be focusing its efforts to present information on the students from our state, not aggregate statistics. The questions raised by their failure are myriad. For Arkansans, is that number going up or down? What is the graduation rate for these students? There is no mention of the impact of Internet education, even that offered by the University System. Are more of the state's students enrolling in web programs in hopes of earning a degree? Some of the higher education institutions offer graduate programs. How many of these students are from outside Arkansas? Will there be opportunities to employ them when their graduate work is complete?

Apparently someone in the Arkansas Department of Higher Education envisions herself or himself as an economist. There are several quotes in the article referencing the Arkansas economy and the conclusion that the economy is improving statewide. The economies of various counties across the state are anything but homogeneous. Employment declined in 57 of our counties between 2000 and 2016. Would this have a positive or negative impact on the higher education institutions, and most particularly, the two-year institutions located in these areas? An "old wives' tale" says more people go to higher education institutions when the economy is poor. However, it does not explain who pays for that if there are fewer jobs. One might also want to look at how the population has behaved across the state. Certainly in the aggregate the population of Arkansas has increased, but it has declined in 42 of our 75 counties. Might this play a role in any conclusions about enrollments in higher education institutions?

One final observation. Apparently the Higher Education Department believes politicians are correct when they blithely assert if we have more college graduates the economy will improve. An improved economy may go hand-in-hand with the number of college graduates but correlation analysis does not distinguish between the independent and dependent variables. There is evidence, indeed, that the opposite causation is true: Improve the economy and the number of college graduates will increase.

Phillip Taylor


Commentary on 10/13/2017

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