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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Supporting Arkansas Scholars

As excitement builds toward graduation ceremonies this spring, it’s a good time to look at Arkansas’s progress in our efforts to improve higher education. With all the advances we’ve made in K-12 education, we’re still situated toward the bottom of national rankings when it comes to obtaining bachelor’s degrees. The good news is, we are starting to turn that trend around, and the young men and women celebrating their high-school graduations now stand a better chance of success in college, as well.

In 2010, only 38 percent of Arkansas’s four-year public university students graduated in six years or less. The two areas that most commonly leave our higher-education students at a disadvantage are inadequate preparation and the lack of financial means to fund a college education all the way to fulfilling a degree program.

Just two years later, we’re already seeing progress. In 2012, the state’s average six-year graduation rate reached 40.8 percent. While the increase is slight, it is a sign that we’re headed in the right direction, and more of our students are finding success.

One of the most efficient ways to continue our progress is through the support of our highest performing high-school graduates. The Governor’s Distinguished Scholars Award, administered by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, does just that. The law allows ADHE to fund up to 300 scholars per class, and recently, we’ve given that program ongoing General Revenue monies so that they no longer have to rely on fund balances that had dwindled drastically.

In recent years, available funding allowed us to increase the number of Distinguished Scholars in the State. However, as fund balances have waned, we faced a significant decrease in available money for the Distinguished Scholars Award for the next fiscal year. In the past, three hundred of our incoming college freshmen received the award annually. For the coming fall, however, there would be only enough money for about 100 new students. As a result, several freshmen who met the stringent qualifications would not receive this state support to continue their scholastic achievement.

My office was inundated with numerous letters and e-mails from students and their families who had worked hard to become eligible for the award. These students were some of the brightest, hardest-working high-school seniors in Arkansas. While their pleas highlighted a problem we were facing, it was also heartening to see the passion these students felt about continuing their education in Arkansas.

During the recently concluded legislative session, members of the Arkansas Legislature and I worked together and crafted a solution to help these students. We found savings in one part of the budget that could be re-directed to support the Governor’s Distinguished Scholars program. As a result, the State will once again be able to assist 300 new Distinguished Scholars this fall.

Education is our state’s top priority. I pledged two years ago to double the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025, and we will have to overcome many challenges to reach that goal in the decade ahead. Dedicated students, their families, teachers and administrators are the key to our continued improvement in obtaining college degrees, and elected leaders and state officials will do all we can to support that effort all the way to graduation day.