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Junior colleges: the good, the many 

Today we'll follow an issue raised previously and on which people seem mildly worked up. That would be the proliferation of publicly financed two-year colleges. In my second recent column on the dissipation and diminishment of our state's higher education dollar with an over-abundance of politically situated two-year institutions of postsecondary education, I wrote that I'd gladly acknowledge a worthy counterargument if someone would please raise a remote excuse for one. So, along came a strongly worded electronic communication from a woman whose intelligence and sensibilities I thoroughly respect. She told me how her boy hadn't fared too well in the regular four-year college in which he initially enrolled. She asserted that these four-year schools mostly compete anymore to offer duplicate programs and attract the upper-tier ACT and SAT scorers into over-crowded and sterilized freshman classes. But now her young man drives up the highway to a two-year community college where the instructors care about him, grade his papers with individualized attention and make academic demands every bit as rigorous as those of the four-year school. She wrote that this two-year school might have rescued her son from despair, no less, and given him a chance to get educated and trained for viable adult employment. She didn't think I should attack that rarest of Arkansas public services, meaning one that actually benefits the non-elite. Her plea was powerful, but my response is simple. I do not disparage the very concept of a community college nor do I propose shutting down all such institutions. I simply assert with the vigor of great confidence we have entirely too danged many of them. Their proliferation dilutes our scare resources and our academic quality, as evidenced by the fact that Arkansas keeps open more postsecondary institutions per capita than 40 other states, but produces a lower four-year graduate rate than any state. That this woman's son and no doubt other youths like him, needing only a chance in the right environment, receive life-changing instruction from a community college in no ways advances the case that we must keep one open within 9.5 miles of every Arkansas resident, as, I'm told, is now the case. (You will notice that seldom do I lose an argument in my column with a reader.) Take Paragould, for example. It's a lovely, growing community with a commendable civic spirit. The thing is that it's a mere 20 minutes along a modern four-lane highway from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. Since 1999, it has sported a branch of the Black River Technical College of Pocahontas, which is 30 miles away, offering both technical and general education courses. Since 2001, it has been graced in converted retail space with an off-campus operation of ASU, which, again, is itself 20 minutes away, and which offers some of the same general education courses available at the local Black River branch. It seems that ASU felt a need to shore up in the Paragould market because Black River looked to be making inroads. That kind of reaction makes sense if the point is to pit colleges against each other. It makes no sense at all if the point is to spend our all-too-limited public dollars wisely and efficiently. And, oh, I nearly forgot to mention that Paraoguld also has the private Crowley's Ridge Community College. Why, they have higher education crawling out their ears in Paragould. Finally, for broader political perspective: No one thinks seriously that this debate will lead to a reduction in the number of postsecondary institutions. What it might do is stop us from creating even more.
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