A new Northwest Arkansas program is being announced today to assist and encourage adults interested in completing their college education.
Graduate NWA involves five higher education institutions in Northwest Arkansas working together to increase the number of residents with college degrees or technical certifications.
The program, which starts today, aims to improve the quality of life for Northwest Arkansas residents by giving them the information and support they need to finish school. Research shows that individuals with college degrees are in a better position than those without degrees to earn higher incomes. More degree holders will make Northwest Arkansas more attractive to expanding and relocating companies.
“We need to increase the competitiveness of our region by increasing how many people have advanced their education beyond high school,” said John Brown III, the chair of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Educational Excellence Work Group. “To attract high-quality, high-wage jobs, we must demonstrate to companies that we can provide the workforce they need to be successful. Graduate NWA encourages and assists those who already live here to complete their degree at one of our five partner institutions. We believe these completed degrees will contribute to higher quality of life in the region.”
A website (www.GraduateNWA.com) is the gateway to the regionwide effort. It provides information to adults interested in returning to school, including guidance about paying for college, about employers’ tuition assistance programs, and about juggling the responsibilities of family and work while in school. It guides website visitors to a person at each of the five partner schools who can answer questions specific to each individual’s situation.
The five Graduate NWA partners are the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences-Northwest, John Brown University, NorthWest Arkansas Community College and Northwest Technical Institute. The Arkansas Department of Higher Education, the Northwest Arkansas Council and the chambers of commerce in Bentonville/Bella Vista, Fayetteville, Rogers-Lowell, Siloam Springs and Springdale are assisting in the effort.
The state Higher Education Department earlier this year started Come Back 2 Go Forward, a program designed to help people complete degrees. “Graduate NWA and Come Back 2 Go Forward provide excellent opportunities to improve Arkansas and also help us move closer to Governor Beebe’s goal of doubling the number of degrees by 2025,” said Shane Broadway, the ADHE’s interim director. “We know 22 percent of people have some college credit, but they don’t have degrees. Helping people complete college creates a sense of accomplishment in people and enables degree recipients to earn a better living.”
A goal in the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy, unveiled in January 2011 by the Northwest Arkansas Council, was to increase the percentage of residents with degrees so the region “can more effectively compete for 21st Century jobs.”
In April 2010, Market Street Services, the Atlanta firm that put together the strategy, completed a Northwest Arkansas Competitive Assessment. A finding in the assessment was that the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Statistical Area trailed peer regions in bachelor and associate degrees.
In 2010, the percentage of Northwest Arkansas residents age 25 or over with a bachelor’s degree or better was 25.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 2.7 percent below the national average.
More than 32 percent of people age 25 or over have at least a bachelor’s degree in metropolitan statistical areas such as Kansas City, Mo., Huntsville, Ala., and Omaha, Neb.
Northwest Arkansas also trails other regions and the nation in associate degrees. The Northwest Arkansas percentage of people age 25 or over with an associate degree is 5.3 percent. The national average in 2008 was 7.5 percent.
“The elevation of degree attainment levels in Northwest Arkansas will be critical in the region’s pursuit of higher-wage, more diverse employment opportunities for the region’s residents,” the competitive assessment reported. “Educational attainment levels are among the first indicators examined by site selectors who are seeking a workforce capable of supporting knowledge-intensive business activity.”
Many places give special attention to improving educational attainment. In Texas, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created the Texas Bachelor Degree Competition Program, and eight universities participate. Similarly, in Louisville, Ky., a program called 55,000 Degrees aims to increase the number of people with postsecondary degrees.