Correction: The Pulaski Technical College board of trustees chairman is Ronald Dedman. This article on tuition at the state’s largest community college misstated his first name.
Pulaski Technical College's board of trustees on Monday approved a 16 percent tuition increase for students beginning July 1.
The board also set fees -- consolidating, removing and adding them. Only one of the new fees -- a $30 per credit hour fee tied to the respiratory-therapy program -- will begin May 26. The others, which include charges for testing purposes, are set to take effect July 1.
The tuition increase comes as the state's largest community college faces declining enrollment and, subsequently, declining tuition and fee revenue. The college's administration has been working to increase enrollment and revenue by reviewing course programs, taking steps to refinance bonds and expanding marketing strategies.
Tuition and fees represent about 70 percent of the community college's revenue.
"This is always a difficult time for me when we have discussions about increasing tuition. I think none of us ever want to increase tuition," board Chairman Robert Dedman said. "We want to keep it as it is or reduce it, but I think that's not a reality here. We need to take care of ourselves financially because we're not going to get any help from anybody else."
Other schools face the same challenges. Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff are among the state's four-year institutions that experienced decreases in enrollment. Nationwide, liberal arts colleges and small universities are also feeling the pinch.
In Arkansas, two-year colleges have a greater profile after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced plans to beef up workforce education and training. An educated workforce will help attract businesses looking to relocate or expand to the state, officials have said.
At Pulaski Tech, a subcommittee of the board of trustees studied scenarios for tuition and fees, and the board got its presentation Monday. The tuition increase moves the current $95 per credit hour to $110 per credit hour.
A student taking 15 credit hours currently pays $2,006.50 in tuition and mandatory fees per semester. Under the approved plan, that same student will pay $2,325 in tuition and mandatory fees per semester.
The new amount per credit hour is on par with 2015 spring semester tuition rates at Mid-South Community College in West Memphis ($110) but is less than those at UALR ($206), the University of Central Arkansas at Conway ($197.25) and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville ($122.50).
Most college and university boards of trustees will set 2015-16 tuition and fee rates at meetings in April, May or June.
Pulaski Tech Trustee Diane Bray said the college shouldn't compare rates with Arkansas State University in Beebe or the University of Arkansas Community College in Morrilton.
"Those are all schools ... at levels that Pulaski Tech was at in 1998," she said of the enrollment numbers. Instead, she said, the college fees should be considered in relation to metropolitan universities such as UALR.
The average UALR student carrying 15 credits pays $3,979.50 for the spring semester in tuition and mandatory fees.
Pulaski Tech didn't raise its tuition for the 2014-15 academic year, though it has seen steady increases in tuition rates ranging from 2.4 percent to 7.1 percent during the past decade.
Pulaski Tech President Margaret Ellibee said the increase approved Monday was "fair and balanced" for the college's students because it can be paid by federal Pell grants -- which assist undergraduates of low-income families and do not have to be repaid -- or by loans. Of the 9,236 students enrolled there in fall 2014, about 80 percent received some type of financial assistance, including scholarships and work study, and some 60 percent received the Pell grants.
The school -- which currently has 8,321 students -- has seen lower enrollment numbers since 2011, Ellibee said. In 2011, she added, the state required changes to increase admission standards, and federal financial-aid requirements became stricter. A survey showed most students left because of the federal financial aid, she said.
That same year, the Pell grant program took a $5.7 billion blow, paring the maximum individual student award amount and making about 1.7 million students ineligible under revised award guidelines.
The tuition increase is only the first step toward establishing an improved financial base, Ellibee said.
"The second step that we have to consider is looking forward and making sure we have a plan in place that's very strategic, that takes into account our forecasting model that we're undertaking at this college and that looks at a fair and balanced perspective for our students," Ellibee said.
With the increase, "we have funds necessary to continue operation of this college. [Our mission is] to provide quality two-year degrees ... to allow students to be prepared to go into the workforce or, if they choose, into higher education."
The uptick in the tuition rate will raise an additional $2.8 million.
The revenue will go toward the college's contingency fund, operation and maintenance for the physical plant, the scholarship budget and general operations. The bulk is for the contingency fund, which has dwindled to $55,800 from $250,000, according to board documents. The fund helps cover budget and appropriation shortfalls.
Of the $2.8 million raised, roughly 15 percent -- or about $427,955 -- will go toward student scholarships. Among the increases, the college also plans to spend an additional $160,000 on advertising and marketing -- an unprecedented move for the institution. Like other higher-education campuses, Pulaski Tech is looking to get its name out to attract potential students. It has already rented out four billboards in central Arkansas for advertising.
Trustee Bray recommended that the board set a certain dollar amount per credit hour increase annually to help the college get equal footing with others in the state. The dollar amount would still be approved by the board annually, she said.
But the idea was largely unpopular with the rest of the seven-member board.
"I understand your concern, and I think you and your committee did an outstanding job," Trustee Tamika Edwards said. "I'm just not comfortable setting an arbitrary number at this point. I prefer the process that we just finished. I prefer for us to have to deal with it because of the demographics of our students."
Bray said the subcommittee that studied possible tuition increases also tried to figure out what was causing the enrollment declines. She asked Dedman, the board chairman, whether it would be worthwhile to create a task force to study just that.
"No one can lose this much business and say, 'Well this happened,'" she said.
The college needs to focus on the students it currently has and then "stair-step" its growth and expansion, Ellibee said.
"It's faculty and staff, aligning what they need to do prioritywise with budget," she said. "We cannot do everything, but we sure can prioritize and then start working on accomplishing those top priorities."
A Section on 04/07/2015