In the first several decades of its existence, the state of Arkansas was fueled almost entirely by agriculture. Upon its admission to the United States in 1836, its strategic proximity to the Mississippi River and its thriving plantation system made Arkansas a farming state first and foremost. It was thus that its educational priorities went most unheeded in the era before the Civil War. Through the 1840s and ‘50s, Presbyterian, Methodist, and secular education enthusiasts sponsored the creation of any number of now long-defunct post-secondary institutions.
Notable among these historical footnotes was the Monticello-based Phi Kappa Sigma College—famous as the only American college named exclusively for its sponsoring fraternity—and Cane Hill College—which granted the state’s very first bachelor’s degree in 1859. Political divisions largely prevented such achievements from becoming a regular occurrence until Civil War hostilities subsided. As Arkansas and its fellow confederate states rejoined the Union, so too developed a more intensive focus on higher education.
In 1872, the Arkansas Industrial University housed its first class, though the state’s lack of comprehensive preparatory schooling to that point meant that most of the academic content focused on high school education. The school that would become the University of Arkansas only a few years hence was inaugurated with a class of eight pupils, including James McGahee, the school’s first African American graduate. The University has seen just a bit of growth since then, boasting 25,000 enrollees and access to more than 200 unique degree programs.
The University of Arkansas is distinguished both as one of the nation’s Top 50 pubic universities and as home to the Razorbacks, whose men’s basketball and football teams have combined for the most national championships of any school in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Arkansas stands alongside Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, and the University of Central Arkansas as tops among the state’s 33 public colleges and universities.
Arkansas offers its in state residents a comparatively affordable public college experience at an average rate of $6,604 per year, which falls below the national average of $8,070.
On the private front, Arkansas boasts 14 non-profit private colleges. Perhaps most notable among them is the Hendrix College, which has drawn students from throughout the nation since its establishment in a year that America was at once rebuilding from war and celebrating its centennial. Today, the regionally diverse campus just outside of Little Rock is widely recognized as one of the top private liberal arts institutions in the country.