UofA Implements Policies to Combat State Brain Drain


Jaime Dunaway | Lemke Newsroom

The exodus of the most academically talented students in Arkansas is problematic for rural communities where an educated workforce is necessary for economic growth. The UofA has implemented several policies to combat the “brain drain” from the state.

Overall, Arkansas experiences a drain instead of a brain gain, said Stuart Estes, a graduate assistant for an honors thesis class that will be offered next semester by the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences. The brain drain is most common in the South and Midwest where rural communities are most prevalent, he said.

Professor Don Johnson, who will teach the class, said he thinks the state breaks even, with some regions losing more students than others. Students tend to move from rural to urban areas within the state, he said.

“Northwest Arkansas brings in a lot of highly educated people, but in parts of eastern Arkansas that’s probably not true,” he said.

Benton and Washington counties were two of the fastest growing counties in 2012, according to census data. Benton County had the highest net migration in Arkansas with 2,973 people moving into the county and Washington County was third with a net migration of 1,715 people, according to data. Net migration is equal to international migration plus domestic migration.

In Crittenden County on the eastern border of the state, 774 people migrated from the county in 2012. Chicot County, the most southeastern county in the state, lost 232 residents. Jefferson County in the southeastern part of the state lost the most people last year with 1,376 residents leaving the county, according to data.

The fall of rural communities could lead to two Americas – one in which pockets of seniors occupy the countryside and the other with a majority of young people inhabiting the cities – Johnson said. The division could separate extended families and lead to other negative effects, he said.

“That’s where our food is produced, it’s where our natural resources are and there are opportunities there we will lose if these communities disappear,” Johnson said. “Rural traditions and small-town values could be completely lost. Some people might want to live in small towns, and we could be forcing them into areas where they don’t want to live.”

Rural communities near urban centers are most likely to survive, while isolated communities may struggle, Johnson said. Small towns must provide jobs and other incentives for educated residents to stay in the community, he said.

The South is a decade behind the rest of the U.S. in creating high-skilled, high-paying jobs that require a college degree, according to a 2012 report conducted by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Nationally, 59 percent of jobs today require postsecondary education, but by 2020, that percentage will increase 7 points to 66, according to the report. In Arkansas, the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education in 2020 will be 51 percent, according to the report.

An increase in postsecondary education can attract businesses and industries in rural areas, but the available jobs determine the demand for educated workers, according to the report. States that invest in postsecondary education, but not economic development, will further the brain drain because out-of-state workers will be hired to fill those highly educated positions in the community.

In 2011, Gov. Mike Beebe called for doubling the state’s college graduates by 2025 and pledged to use tax dollars to achieve this goal. Only 20 percent of the adult population in Arkansas had a bachelor’s degree in 2011, according to the 2013 State of Northwest Arkansas Region Report.

The South’s high number of industrial and manufacturing jobs, which generally do not require college degrees, is a major reason the region has lagged behind in education, according to the report. In the manufacturing industry, only 30 to 40 percent of workers have a college degree, according to the report. However, increasing technology has increased the demand for college graduates as manufacturing workers with specific skills, training and preparation are needed to operate advanced equipment.

Manufacturing is the third largest employment sector in Arkansas at 14 percent, and blue-collar workers make up the largest percentage of the workforce at 30 percent, according to the report. However, the state’s employment rate is growing at the fourth fastest rate in the South, and it is one of the few Southern states where all sectors are expected to increase employment, according to the report.

Some towns have tried providing amenities, such as coffee shops, libraries and recreational activities, in an attempt to keep people from leaving. Those efforts have been met with mixed success, Johnson said. Small towns may also try providing more educational resources for students who are likely to stay in the community, Johnson said.

“It’s in the self-interest of the community to dedicate its resources to students who will by staying around,” Johnson said. “That’s from a completely selfish community standpoint. What needs to happen is to increase the resources for non-college students without shorting the college-bound student.”

Steve Nipper, community bank president of BancorpSouth in Magnolia, Ark., said most of southern Arkansas is experiencing a brain drain, but Magnolia is “holding its own” against the youth exodus. Magnolia, which has a population of around 12,000 people, is located in Columbia County where 231 residents left last year, according to data.

“It’s still difficult to keep people,” he said. “We keep a lot of people with natural resource jobs, but it’s hard to get doctors and lawyers.”

The presence of Southern Arkansas University helps the local economy by attracting businesses and providing a diversified workforce to fill positions in the community that require a college degree, Nipper said.

“There’s still a lot that get away, but SAU keeps them in Magnolia once they get here,” he said.

Nipper graduated from the UofA and returned to Magnolia because he was offered a job. Nipper said it would have been difficult to return to Magnolia without the job offer, but he is now committed to helping grow the local economy.

“It’s my hometown,” he said. “I feel like there are small town virtues. Living in small towns there are lower crime rates, it’s a better place to raise children and, if done properly, there are plenty of things to do.”

Schools in rural communities should teach a variety of vocational and job-training courses to equip students who will not be going to college with the technical skills needed in the workforce, Johnson said. Schools should also incorporate discussions about local job opportunities, he said. Students are praised for receiving a scholarship or being accepted to college, but there is little recognition for the student who takes a job in the community after graduation, he said.

Teachers and parents often contribute to the rural brain drain by encouraging young people who have the most academic potential to pursue higher education out of state, Estes said. The military also adds to the brain drain by offering those who may not be academically inclined a chance to enlist and travel the world, leaving important industrial jobs vacant in rural communities, he said.

Policymakers are most concerned with the brain drain at two points: when students enter postsecondary education and when they complete their bachelor’s degree, according to the paper “Moving On: State Policies to Address Academic Brain Drain in the South,” written by Kimberly Rogers and Donald Heller, research assistants at Pennsylvania State University.

Of the more than 25,000 students at the UofA, Arkansas residents make up 60 percent of the student population with a total of 15,307, a decrease of more than 100 people from last year, according to 2013 enrollment reports. Nonresidents make up 34 percent of the student population with a total of 8,647, an increase of more than 700 people from the year before, according to the report. International students make up the remaining 6 percent.

State universities use honors colleges, merit scholarships and other methods to keep local students in the state for postsecondary education. Former Chancellor John White and Chancellor G. David Gearhart have put many policies in place that push for a brain gain at the university, said Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment.

“Bringing Arkansans to the university is our highest priority,” she said.

The creation of the honors college has been instrumental in keeping highly educated students in state, McCray said. Students may attend college out of state, thinking their home universities are of poor quality, but honors colleges can combat the brain drain by providing a quality education that is cheaper than Ivy League schools and other private institutions, according to the paper. Also, by offering separate housing quarters, smaller class sizes and priority class registration, honors colleges attract high-quality students without limiting places for those who are less academically inclined, according to the paper.

States also use merit scholarships to retain educated students. The Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, sponsored mainly by the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, was the first broad-based, state-financed merit scholarship program in the country when it began in 1991, according to the paper. To be eligible for the scholarship, students must have graduated from an Arkansas high school and maintain a 2.75 GPA or score a 19 on the ACT, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

Furthermore, to qualify for the state’s Governor’s Scholars Program, students must be a resident of the state, enroll at a public or private state university and have a 3.5 high school GPA or a 27 on the ACT, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. The Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship awards $10,000 for tuition, room and board and books.

To achieve a brain gain, the UofA awards scholarships for out-of-state students. The New Arkansan Non-Resident Tuition Award pays most of the difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition at the university. Students from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma are eligible if they have at least a 3.5 GPA and a 24 on the ACT. The scholarship pays up to 90 percent of out-of-state tuition.

“We would love to recruit out-of-state students, and if they don’t remain in Arkansas, we hope they will be an ambassador for Arkansas wherever they go,” McCray said.