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Arkansas's Two-Year College Investment

By Dr. Ed Franklin

As the economy continues its gradual recovery, there is one area of the job market that has been expanding throughout the downturn, and it is an area that has acute need for trained and certified workers. That is the segment of the job market requiring one-to-two year training, certification and degrees. Importantly for Arkansas, it is a segment in which the state’s two-year colleges are providing this critical training.

Consider: Forbes magazine has identified “Top High Wage/High Demand Jobs” for community college graduates as among those in which starting salaries are far above not only the state average, but even further exceed the average annual income of those without an associate degree or certification. In the healthcare field, those jobs include dental hygienists, registered nurses, radiology technicians, respiratory therapists and sonographers.

In the trade professions, these well-paying jobs include electricians, plumbers, construction management and HVAC and refrigeration mechanics and installers. With specific regard to Arkansas’ two-year colleges, the top technical majors are in the health sciences, business management, mechanics and repair, engineering technology and precision production (e.g. welding).

Not only is there a growing demand for trained workers in these fields, there is a concurrent shrinking supply. For several years, a significant number of those filling these jobs have reached retirement age at a rate higher than the workforce in total. This is a trend that is expected to continue for the next several years. Simply put, this convergence of expanding demand and shrinking supply has created job opportunities for those prepared to seize them.

Arkansas’ two-year colleges play the leading role in training, certifying and equipping Arkansans of all ages to take advantage of these opportunities and help secure their financial futures and the economic well-being of the entire state. As importantly, two-year colleges provide an affordable option for those looking to begin their post-secondary educations, but who have yet to decide on career or degree plans. This option allows them to earn credit hours in “the basics” that are typically transferable to four-year institutions. And, with 60 locations throughout Arkansas, two-year colleges provide education and training that is most accessible, an important consideration for non-traditional students who are balancing the needs of a family, work and education.

The benefits of two-year colleges not only accrue to individual students and their families, but they accrue to the state’s economy in several ways.  First, students of two-year colleges, through higher incomes, expand revenue to the state. In turn, the businesses that employ them become more productive which also expands the state’s economic base.

A 2013 study conducted by Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc., estimated the impact to be $275 million in taxable income to the state each and every year. The same study estimated that “social savings” through a residual decrease in substance abuse, dependence on public assistance and crime rate to be nearly $16 million annually. Taken together, the study concluded that for every dollar the state invests in its two-year colleges, yields a cumulative of $20.70 in benefits that accrue to all Arkansans in terms of added taxable income and avoided social costs.

Thus, taken together, investment and support for Arkansas’ two-year colleges generates revenue and results in reduced state spending.

The return on the investment Arkansas makes in two-year colleges and their students is significant, far reaching and impacts each and every Arkansan. At a time when Arkansas’ leaders are establishing and voting on funding priorities, it is crucial that they continue to adequately invest in and fund the state’s two-year colleges. As they do,they will be ensuring the economic futures not only of workers and their families, but that of all Arkansans and the State of Arkansas, now and well into the future.