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story.lead_photo.caption Sydney Carson, a freshman from Shawnee, Kan., walks along the east side of Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the oldest campus in the University of Arkansas System. The UA System, the largest in the state, hopes to add more campuses to its network of higher-education institutions. - Photo by Jason Ivester

At the last legislative session, Rep. Mark Lowery drafted a bill seeking to bring the University of Central Arkansas in Conway into the Arkansas State University System.

But he never filed it.

Instead, he broadened the idea after a talk with Speaker of the House Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia. The proposal has found new wings in the legislative Higher Education Realignment Task Force.

What started as a hope to bring more oversight at UCA -- a school that "every six months or so, there's some issue that's raised," Lowery said -- has evolved into something bigger: a closer look into all of the higher-education institutions in Arkansas.

"In approaching that, there then was discussion about why not go ahead and look at overall evaluation of independent universities, especially two-year colleges and bringing them into a system," said Lowery, a Maumelle Republican. "Let's look at the entire area of higher education to net significant advantages financially and otherwise."

Nationwide, colleges and universities -- especially smaller ones -- are facing declining enrollment and subsequently, less revenue. The outlook has brought on discussions of mergers. Georgia has often looked to consolidation of its higher education institutions as a way to deal with declining state funding. Alabama consolidated seven community colleges into two regional systems in December 2015.

And Arkansas is taking note.

Last week, the University of Arkansas System board gave its president, Donald Bobbitt, the go-ahead to "explore and report back to the board regarding possible partnerships or agreements with Arkansas institutions of higher education that express interest in potential membership in the UA System."

The resolution will start conversations with interested community colleges or even four-year universities that may want to be part of the system, he said.

ASU System trustees had given President Chuck Welch a similar type of authority when he first stepped into that role in 2009, he said.

"I think that certainly, because of all the changes going on within higher ed, institutions are looking at all options for the next steps and the longterm," Welch said. "Affiliation is one of those options."

Higher education looks different in each state. Unlike many of its peers in other states, Arkansas has maintained its funding for its public colleges and universities over the past several years. At the same time, operating costs have increased, and despite some enrollment shortages, schools are increasingly feeling the pressure to not only have more students but to graduate them on time.

That brought the legislative task force to ask first: is the state underfunding higher education?, Lowery said.

"We've not been," he said. "So, barring an ability to dramatically increase that, our next strategy is what can we do to better utilize what's coming in, whether through in-state support or lottery scholarships. What can we do to better help the students?"

The thought has resonated through Gov. Asa Hutchinson's administration, which has pushed for efficiency and cost savings from the start. It's trickled down to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, which through its master plan is studying among other things institutional funding, state funding and student success in finding strategies to increase Arkansans' higher education credentials by 50 percent.

Bobbitt, the UA System president, praised the governor and Higher Education Department Director Brett Powell for the master plan.

"They have -- in their master plan -- encouraged us strongly to look for ways to become more efficient, to use resources to educate more students," Bobbitt said. "I agree with those goals. We have to do what we're doing now and doing it better."

Both the UA System and ASU System presidents have said they've been approached about possible partnerships.

But, the actual partnerships don't happen that often.

The University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service joined the UA System in 2004. Just months before it joined, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts became part of the UA System, too. And before that, what was then Westark Community College became the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in 2002.

The ASU System just last year became affiliated with what was Mid-South Community College, which added more financial and legislative resources to the West Memphis school. The system's previous union was in 2001, when it incorporated the Delta Tech Institute in Marked Tree with its Newport campus.

And now, there are four standalone universities, and about half of the state's 22 colleges are independent, including the two largest, Pulaski Technical College and Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Pulaski Tech President Margaret Ellibee said she would have the conversation should a system president approach her.

"Having that dialogue shows that we're being professional," she said, adding that it'll include getting down to the T about benefits and consequences. "We're looking at the larger events that are shaping policy or could shape policy for higher ed."

She said the parties will see how it goes from there.

Neither system president say they have imminent or pending mergers at the moment, but both see benefits to it.

All organizations -- whether it's just one or a group of 10 -- have fixed costs, UA's Bobbitt said. But the beauty of the group, he said, is that some of those costs can be split among the institutions, which in turn save money.

For example, the system recently negotiated a contract with Blackboard, a learning management system, for all of its higher education institutions, said Michael Moore, the system's vice president for academic affairs.

Before, each school -- except the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope and the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton -- had its own Blackboard contract with different price structures and add-ons. As a whole, they were paying about $1.3 million, he said.

Now, the system has added on the two schools, along with its online-only eVersity. Each campus also has the full array of add-ons plus a free year of technical support from the company, Moore said. It's saved the system some $236,000 and speaks volumes to the purchasing power of a group, he said.

Bobbitt said he's an advocate of "1+1=3" partnerships.

"The whole, the larger system, is better than the sum of its individual parts," he said. "That means that 1 and 1 are complimenting each other, leading to a whole stronger than either parts."

Several campus leaders and legislators have said that mergers could ease students transferring from community colleges to four-year universities within a system.

Being part of a group can give the merging institution some services and opportunities it may not have otherwise, Welch said. As a part of the ASU System, Welch said the institution would not have to "answer to Jonesboro" -- a myth he had to dispel with Mid-South -- but would maintain local autonomy.

With Mid-South, Welch said he wanted to ensure the buy-in of the entire campus. So, he met with every group on the campus, along with the community, spelling out what exactly it meant to be a part of a system, he said.

It would facilitate conversations with legislators, who could then talk to fewer directors of governmental affairs or lobbyists about higher education, he added. The biggest motivator is funding, he said.

"Higher ed is different than we were two decades ago," he said. "It's about reducing roadblocks for students. If those common interests are to be put together as revenue becomes tighter and tighter, I think everybody looks for angles. There's lots of different ways of it being done. It depends on the state, its institutions and the history of state and institutions. There's no one model that fits best for everyone."

NW News on 02/01/2016

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  • LR1955
    February 1, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    Anything to ease students transferring [hours] from community colleges to four-year universities within a system would be welcome. But the U of A system needs to get that worked out in their transfers now!

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