HOT SPRINGS -- Even though Arkansas experienced a significant decrease in college enrollment during the pandemic, this fall's headcount for all colleges and universities across the state increased 2% from the fall of 2022.
The total unduplicated headcount for the fall 2023 term in all sectors of Arkansas higher education -- including public universities, public colleges, private/independent colleges and universities, and nursing schools, was 150,786 students, Sonia Hazelwood, the Arkansas Division of Higher Education's chief data officer, explained during a meeting Friday of the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board at National Park College. Though headcount has been rising since a notable drop -- attributed to the pandemic -- headcount remains short of the pre-pandemic figure of 156,069 in fall 2019.
The unduplicated headcount counts students enrolled for credit only once during the given reporting period, regardless of when the student enrolled.
Public, four-year universities account for 62% of the fall headcount, with public, two-year colleges another 27%, private/independent institutions -- which managed to maintain consistent enrollment even during the pandemic, unlike public colleges and universities -- 10%, and two-year nursing schools less than 1%, according to Hazelwood. Nursing schools were the only ones to report a year-to-year headcount decline, of 44 students.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which has the largest enrollment in the state, and Arkansas State University, which has the second-highest enrollment in the state, had the biggest increases in headcount by percentage from fall 2022 to fall 2023, according to Hazelwood. The latter was up 6.4%, while the former was up 3.9%.
"Don't be surprised if we've grown some more next year," as applications are up 50% from the fall of 2022, UA-Fayetteville Chancellor Charles Robinson said last fall. "When I came here in 1999, we had 15,000 students total," but the university now has more than 32,000.
While 16 two-year colleges increased fall headcount from the fall of 2022, six lost students, according to Hazelwood. Schools with the largest increases were the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton (17.8%), Arkansas State University Three Rivers (10.7%), Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas (9.9%), the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (9.5%), Arkansas State University-Newport (8.8%), and the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope-Texarkana (8.5%), while schools with the largest declines were Southeast Arkansas Community College (9.8%) and Arkansas Northeastern College (3.4%).
The Morrilton college "has been very deliberate in recruiting students, focusing on non-traditional students and short-term training needs as well as concurrent high school students," groups that at times are "overlooked," and who may not necessarily seem themselves in a traditional college experience, UACCM Chancellor Lisa Willenberg said this fall. The college tries to demonstrate "what's available to them by way of community college training, whether it's to upskill or retrain for a second career, or earn concurrent credits and prepare to enter the skilled workforce immediately following high school," she said.
"Individuals who are not really sure what they want to do with their lives may go to community college with an exploratory mindset as there are so many options; then, before they know it, they find success with classes and have a whole new view of their futures," Willenberg added. "With the many opportunities available through the State for education and workforce training, there's never been a better time to enroll at a community college."
At Phillips Community College, "we've seen a big shift in post-secondary goals since" the pandemic, with youth "exploring more options beyond what they're used to seeing in their communities, and the national conversations that have been taking place about student debt have made a generation of students wary of taking out loans to pay for college," Drew Smith, PCCUA's director of enrollment management, explained in the fall. "Programs that have specific scholarships, like our behavioral health program, and programs that can immediately place graduates in high-paying jobs, like our [commercial driver's license] program, fill up very quickly.
"High schools are also looking to boost opportunities they can provide their students, especially with the upcoming diploma tract requirements from the LEARNS Act," Smith added. "Our directors of high school relations have done a wonderful job facilitating the enrollment process for them."
Statewide graduate headcount for all public and private institutions declined for fall 2023 by 246 students, a 1.4% loss from the fall 2022 term, but high school student headcount -- including both concurrent and dually enrolled students -- increased from the previous year by 1,645 students, an 8.6% increase to the largest high school student fall term headcount on record, according to Hazelwood. The pandemic "was a significant factor in the decline in high school headcounts starting in fall 2020."
Nationally, the percentage of people age 25 and older who have completed a bachelor's degree or higher is about 38%, but only about a quarter of Arkansans have at least a bachelor's degree, which puts Arkansas ahead of only Mississippi and West Virginia, according to USA Facts, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan, civic initiative that analyzes government data.
Even before the pandemic, college enrollment in Arkansas had started to fall following a peak in 2013, mirroring a national trend, ADHE Commissioner Ken Warden said. Roughly a decade ago, a "narrative" began to take hold for many in America that college is not worth the investment, and "a focus of our division is to increase higher education participation in Arkansas."
In his annual financial report, Nick Fuller, ADHE's chief financial officer, noted that more than half of the facilities on the state's campuses are more than 30 years old, and "after a facility has reached the 30-year mark, most of the life expectancy of the building systems has elapsed," making deferred maintenance "a dire need on campuses."
Lack of dedicated capital improvement funding means that institutions have increasingly turned to bond indebtedness to finance essential improvements, leading to rising tuition or fees, Fuller noted. "A revolving loan fund dedicated to deferred maintenance has been enacted and created during this past legislative session; however, there is currently no funding available for this new program."
The state's four-year institutions increased tuition and fees on average by 3.2% for fiscal year 2023-24, while two-year colleges increased by 6.9%, according to Fuller.
Based on 2021 statistics, average faculty salaries at the state's four-year universities and two-year schools continue to lag behind the preponderance of the 16 states in its southern region, according to Fuller. For four-year universities, Arkansas ranked ahead only of Louisiana, and for two-year colleges, Arkansas ranked last.
Salaries at four-year universities in Arkansas were about $14,000 lower than the average among the 16 states in the region, he said. For two-year schools, Arkansas was $11,000 below the average.
The low salaries, especially at two-year schools, seem "like a problem," said Jim Carr, the Coordinating Board's secretary. "Something needs to be done."
Coordinating Board members and assignments
The Coordinating Board unanimously approved officers for 2024-25. Graycen Bigger, of Pocahontas, whose term expires in 2025, will remain chair, while Jerry Cash, of Harrison, whose term expires in 2026, will be vice chair, and Kyle Miller, of Helena, whose term expires later this year, will be secretary.
Friday's meeting was also the first for a pair of new board members, Little Rock's Katherine Dudley, and Mountain Home's Heather Maxey. Coordinating Board members are appointed by the governor, and the terms of both Dudley and Maxey expire in 2029.
Dudley, a teacher who attended the Little Rock School District, has degrees from the University of Central Arkansas, Belmont University, and Arizona State University, earning a Doctor of Education degree in Leadership and Innovation at ASU, according to ADHE. She also has a graduate certificate from Cornell University.
Maxey and her family currently own and operate several dealerships including Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, and Jeep, according to ADHE. Maxey attended the Sam Walton College of Business, where she majored in marketing, at the UA-Fayetteville.