While Arkansas has done a better job of preparing students for college, the president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities said Tuesday the state needs to increase the number of college graduates it produces.
“We’re next to last in the percentage of college graduates,” Rex Nelson said, adding that the state is ahead only of West Virginia in the percentage of college graduates.
“We’re going to struggle economically if we don’t find a way to get the percentages up,” Nelson told the Pine Bluff Rotary Club.
Nelson, who was formerly chief of staff for former Gov. Mike Huckabee, described improving public education as “one of the great untold stories in the state,” and attributed it to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s involvement through the Lake View case a decade ago.
“If the Arkansas Supreme Court hadn’t held a gun to the head of the Arkansas Legislature, it would not have gotten done,” he said.
He said the Arkansas General Assembly worked for five years, coming up with plans and funding formulas, only to have the court say “you still don’t have it right.”
“After five years, the court finally said ‘you’ve got it right and and we’re made tremendous strides in kindergarten through 12th grade,” he said. “They’re doing a better job of preparing kids for college and there is money available from the lottery for college scholarships.”
“Now, we’ve got to retain them so they can get those degrees,” he said. “Over 40 percent of those students receiving lottery scholarships wash out.
“Public and private schools have got to work together if we’re going to reach Gov. (Mike) Beebe’s goal of doubling the number of college graduates by 2025,” Nelson said. “For our economic well being, it’s got to be done.”
In addition to his role as president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities, Nelson is also a political writer and commentator.
“We are living in one of the most fascinating times in the history of the state,” Nelson said. “We are in the middle of a demographic revolution and a political revolution.”
Regarding the demographic revolution, Nelson said the 2010 census showed that 39 counties in Arkansas gained population, while 36 others lost population, nearly all of them in the eastern and southern parts of the state.
“In the Delta, it actually started in the 50’s with the mechanization of agriculture,” Nelson said. “Then there was the great movement of African-Americans to the industrial cities of the north. It’s like a magnet drawing people from the east and south to the north and west and we’re going to have to be careful that we don’t get split into two states.”
Regarding the political revolution, Nelson said now we “truly live in a two party state.”
He said that Arkansas voters supported candidates like the late Winthrop Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee for governor because they had strong personalities.
“But when it got to the legislature, there was not much. It was like people would vote for Mike Huckabee but them vote Democrat, Democrat, Democrat for other offices,” he said.
Nelson said that trend changed two years ago. “A lot of voters did a 180.”
“Gov. Beebe won by an overwhelming margin but then a lot of voters turned around and voted Republican (in the other races), electing a Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State and State Land Commissioner,” Nelson said.
“Republicans went from zero to three state officers in one year and gained seats in the senate and house,” Nelson said. “This year, the Republicans could capture the majority of one or both of them for the first time since reconstruction.”
Based on state polls, Nelson said Republicans will win all for races for the U.S. House of Representatives, the three they currently hold and the Fourth District seat currently held by U.S. Representative Mike Ross, who did not seek re-election.
“The state will go from five Democrats and one Republican to five Republicans and one Democrat,” Nelson said.