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A Robust Future for Arkansas and Higher Ed’s Role (Michael D. Williams Commentary)

3 min read

Futurists claim members of emerging generations will have 20 different jobs in their lifetimes. They also predict these jobs will likely be in five different industries of which one or two do not currently exist. In essence, the knowledge economy will continue to drive epic change and innovation.

How will Arkansas flourish in this emerging reality? Do we have barriers that threaten our competitiveness? Are there strategic investments needed to ensure our success in this arena?

It is a poignant moment for higher education. The whole system is recalibrating to a new reality. The goal is to develop a sustainable model maintaining affordability. But we must also address the dynamic needs of workforce development and equip graduates with an intellectual capacity extending beyond readiness for their first job.

The current narrative that questions the value of higher education is an existential threat. Sensational pundits use outlier examples to devalue a college education. The conversation regarding student debt lacks logic, reason and discernment. Moreover, the rhetoric is shortsighted and fails to recognize the world that our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

The College Board reports the average undergraduate student debt is $28,400. That is not the average of all undergraduates but only the average of all students who borrow money for college. Harding University continues to invest significantly in merit and need-based scholarships, so numerous students complete their undergraduate degrees without educational loans.

The Georgetown University Center on Education & the Workforce recently released a paper titled “The College Payoff.” It suggests the earnings gap between a high school graduate and a college graduate would be about $1 million over a career. As individuals obtain graduate and professional degrees, the earnings gap increases exponentially.

It is a self-defeating prophecy to dissuade students from pursuing the highest level of education available to them, especially in light of the escalating skill sets required in a knowledge economy. The investment of a used truck ($28,000) is now used as a weapon to discourage higher education. The fixation on and criticism of student debt are particularly damaging to potential first-generation college students and students from underrepresented groups. It is well documented that these students are more risk averse and less debt tolerant. We should refer to it as “student investment” rather than “student debt.” The return on investment is far more lucrative than the equity market.

To compete globally, Arkansas must inspire its citizens to be lifelong learners. Our potential is propelled by an educated citizenry who can think critically, solve problems, read and research evidence, communicate effectively and work collaboratively — the hallmarks of American higher education.

Sadly, unreasoned critics want to pit the higher education needs of our nation against the needs for a better prepared technical and trade workforce. As we look at the economic development opportunities of the future, we must pursue all forms of professional training and education. These are not mutually exclusive goals.

Furthermore, both higher education and workforce development hinge their futures on a strong K-12 sector. A robust future for Arkansas calls for increased investment and enhanced performance across the spectrum of education. Literacy and STEAM education are the levers of economic well-being. Our acceptance of mediocrity caps our potential.

Given the seismic changes that are coming, do we think we are better prepared with fewer college graduates? As the knowledge economy continues to grow, I believe the income disparity will increase between high school and college graduates. Now is the time to invest in a robust future for Arkansas and to inspire students to raise their expectations beyond the investment cost. Low investment yields low returns. It is time to envision a bright future for our home state.

Michael D. Williams is the sixth president of Harding University of Searcy, a private university affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
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