Southwest Arkansas has shown dramatic improvement in the general educational level of its populace since Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe challenged state leaders to double the number of college graduates in the state to meet the demand of a new employment era.
Southwest Arkansas has shown dramatic improvement in the general educational level of its populace since Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe challenged state leaders to double the number of college graduates in the state to meet the demand of a new employment era. But, as University of Arkansas Community College at Hope Chancellor Chris Thomason told local Rotarians recently, that goal remains elusive without a top to bottom understanding of the need. And, that is part of the focus of the U Can at Hope program, Thomason said. The program provides for a three credit hour scholarship for one class in the 2014 spring semester at UACCH to any Hempstead County resident who has not attended college in the last two years and has not completed an associate degree or higher course of study. The scholarship essentially makes the class free, Thomason said. “I think the reason it is so important is that it shows how focused UACCH is on trying to meet the needs of the community our number one priority,” he said. The U Can at Hope program is not geared toward the traditional college student, Thomason said. And, there is a reason for that focus. “That is the average student who graduates from high school and goes straight to college,” he said. “But, with the 1,500 or so students at UACCH, about 700 of those students are age 19 and under.” About half of the enrollment of the college is what Thomason characterized as “non-traditional” students. “If you look at the most recent data, it would suggest to you that in Hempstead County, there are over 2,100 residents here that have some college education but no degree,” Thomason said. “And, Hempstead County is about five percentage points or higher behind the average in Arkansas for residents who hold a bachelor's degree or higher. That's about 14.5 percent.” He called that part of the population with college hours but no degree is a local resource that has not been fully tapped. “Our faculty and staff is doing a great job of attracting non-traditional students,” Thomason said. “I think that is obvious; but, are we doing enough?” Expanding one's education is part of expanding one's horizons, Thomason said; and, tapping that resource can have economic benefits for Hempstead County in the long term. “At the end of the day, we have to offer them the opportunity to get a better job, and to provide better for their families through their education,” he said. “And, we all know that, in order to do that, we have to create economic growth.” One of the engines of economic growth, Thomason said, is the development of a more highly-skilled, educated workforce. “My point is that, with that 2,100 residents who have some college, but no degree; they have already shown that they recognize the value of education,” he said. “But, they have also already shown they are committed to being a resident of Hempstead County. So, if we can further their education and help them complete what they've started; and, they continue on as a resident here, they are going to add to their own wealth and personal progress, but also helping all of us progress through that more highly-trained workforce.” U Can at Hope is a pilot program that Thomason admits is geared to start small. “You are not going to see the numbers we have from some of our other scholarship programs, or from the state lottery scholarship program,” he said. “But, what it does is to focus on those Hempstead County residents who have been out of school for two or more years who are not sure they can go back to college, or can afford it, or that you have the time to make it happen in your life.” Thomason said U Can at Hope will give local residents an opportunity to positively answer those questions. “We saw that with the power plant technology scholarship; that, if you take out that unknown, you probably can get help or financial aid,” he said. “There is no probably about this; if you are willing to register for that class this spring and show up, this scholarship, under those guidelines, will be there for you.”