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National News

AR School Works to Attract More Students to Higher Ed

Credit: iStock

Danielle Smith

new report on Black students in the community college system found fewer are signing up to attend two-year schools, and the college enrollment downturn has been even sharper in the pandemic.

Debra West, chancellor of Arkansas State University Mid-South, an Arkansas college which has started to buck the trend, said her two-year school also has seen declining enrollment, and the drop was more dramatic among white students than Black students. But West pointed out the school has renewed its focus on adding programs to attract more students of color.

One popular course of study trains people for the in-demand field of commercial truck driving.

“The other area that we think we have tremendous room for expansion in is in health care,” West explained. “We’re going to start by focusing on our EMT program and hopefully expanding that into a paramedic program, because we know there’s a lot of interest in health care programs in our area, and great demand for trained health care workforce in our area.”

The report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on Black students’ experiences in community college showed enrollment dropped 18% for all Black students from Fall 2019 to Fall 2021, and detailed other pressures preventing students from completing school, including hunger and housing insecurity.

The report also found lower graduation rates among Black community college students. West said her school’s overall graduation rate was only about 9% in 2015. However, they have implemented some recommendations from Complete College America, such as eliminating late registration, creating flexible scheduling and capping most associate degrees at 60 hours. Now, she reported the graduation rate is ticking up.

“We have actually increased our graduation rate by 19.8% over the past five years,” West noted. “We’re currently at 33.6%, which is pretty average for Arkansas, but indicates that we still have work to do.”

Last year, the school’s completion rate for African American students was 31%, and 32% for white students. West added student loans are not an issue at the school, as it does not provide them. Instead, students get locally-funded scholarships or federal Pell Grants.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

This story was written by Danielle Smith, a producer at Public News Service, where this story first appeared.