Two community colleges -- the state's smallest and one of its largest -- are taking a closer look at joining the University of Arkansas System.
Rich Mountain Community College in Mena and Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock have each held fiercely to their independence for more than two decades. But, now, administrators and board members are considering what has never previously officially on the table -- a merger.
Colleges and universities nationwide are looking more and more at mergers as their state funding has declined, said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
All mergers look different, he said, but for most the motivation behind them is the same: to save money.
"This is being driven by state budget scarcity -- very limited state budgets -- as well as demographics," he said. "In some places, there's a smaller pool of high school graduates coming up. As lawmakers struggle with state budgets, they're asking why institutions in close proximity have duplicative structures and programs."
The idea is that mergers free up money by reducing administrative costs, and redirect it to student support services and academic programs, he said. That's been true in Georgia, the state leading all others in higher-education-institution mergers.
Georgia's higher-education setup is different from what's in Arkansas. All universities and colleges there are under one umbrella, known as the University System of Georgia. In the fall of 2011, the system's chancellor, Hank Huckaby, started several initiatives and looked anew at consolidating institutions to better serve students now and in the future, according to its website.
The system is working on its seventh consolidation -- a historically black college and a predominantly white school. In 2012, the system combined a liberal arts university and a health sciences one.
"We were the largest consolidation from the point of view of differences," said Ricardo Azziz, the former president of Georgia Regents University and Georgia Health Sciences University. "I think in many ways the system at Georgia was looking for new ideas on how to provide better services to the students and taxpayers in a better manner. I think the driver there had to be better ways of coordinating and getting better bang for the buck."
At the end of the day, there's a certain level of fewer higher administrative positions, saving some money, Azziz said. But those savings are offset by rebranding costs -- name changes, new information technology services, new websites, he said.
"People are expecting enormous savings, and that's generally not true," he said. "What you really are looking for when you do these mergers is greater efficiencies. You can generate better product or better services, programs for the students at the same or lesser cost. Students have a broader choice or programs, a richer experience."
Georgia's mergers are a bit different from what has been proposed in Arkansas, where the two community colleges are considering joining the UA System.
Stagnant state funding for colleges and universities has led campus officials and legislators to look for efficiencies in Arkansas' schools.
Of the state's 22 community colleges, 12 are independent institutions. Four are affiliated with the Arkansas State University System, five are part of the University of Arkansas System, and one is an arm of Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.
The most recent merger in Arkansas was last year when Mid-South Community College in West Memphis became part of the ASU System. Rather than financial concerns, the impetus for that merger was better access to education, workforce training and economic development, said Diane Hampton, the school's vice chancellor of institutional advancement.
"We felt our advantage was branding, increased synergy in areas of transfer programs, efficiencies and external support, including legal assistance, communication and marketing, and enhanced lobbying efforts by the System Office," she said in an email. "We have seen increased efficiency in areas of professional development, policy and compliance through access to the ASU System experience. Our external support also includes access to the System's legal team as Mid-South did not previously have such."
The UA System's latest partnership was in 2004 with the inclusion of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. Just months before, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts became part of the UA System. Before that, in 2002, Westark Community College in Fort Smith joined the UA System becoming the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
On Monday, Pulaski Tech trustees are to hear from UA System President Donald Bobbitt on the proposed merger.
The community college has had lower enrollment since its peak in 2011 when it had 11,946 students. Last fall, the community college had 7,648 students. Because of fewer students, the college is seeing less revenue from tuition and fees.
To boost retention, Pulaski Tech has reached out to students who have stopped attending. They've also ramped up marketing strategies to show that the college is a viable educational option.
The college's leaders have said that with or without the UA brand, they think enrollment will soon even out because of stronger admissions requirements. Until adopting those requirements, the college was an open-admission school, accepting all students who had high school diplomas or general educational development certificates.
The UA System brand could help raise the school's enrollment, Pulaski Tech Executive Vice President and Provost Michael DeLong said earlier this month.
College President Margaret Ellibee said she's looking at two things.
"One, how would that impact student success?" she asked a committee of trustees earlier this month. "That, I think would be very positive. Second, would be what would that decision do for the operation and the benefit of this college and its employees? Would we save money on health insurance? And I am betting we will.
"You look at the health insurance package of the UA System school and what we currently have, it's so much better. It's less money. And those savings just for that, we could put into construction and ... other things."
The school would also have better purchasing power as part of the UA System, Ellibee said.
For example, she said the school currently pays about $180,000 a year in a contract with Blackboard, a learning management system. And that's for the basic version.
Meanwhile, the UA System recently negotiated a contract with Blackboard for all of its institutions.
Previously, each school in the system -- except for the UA Community College at Hope and the UA 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.
Now, the UA System has added those 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, said Michael Moore, the UA System's vice president for academic affairs. It's saved the system some $236,000 -- and about $11 million in potential savings through a six-year contract -- and speaks volumes about the purchasing power of a group, he has said.
If Pulaski Tech joins the UA System and receives the same Blackboard provisions, Ellibee said, that would help students succeed. And if the college could save that money and invest it in other areas, that would be good, she said.
"Looking ahead in decisions that are going to be forthcoming, we think about those at 2 o'clock in the morning," she said.
If trustees for Rich Mountain and Pulaski Tech move forward with a merger, the state would -- for the first time ever -- have more system schools than independents, said Rich Mountain's President Phillip Wilson.
About five years ago, Wilson said, he had an informal conversation about the future of higher education with Melissa Rust, the UA System's vice president for university relations. In a parking lot outside the state Capitol, the two talked about murmurings of a merger.
In December, those murmurings grew louder after Wilson heard from Bobbitt, the UA System's president. And in February, Bobbitt presented a proposal to Rich Mountain's trustees. Since then, Wilson said, officials have had open discussions with faculty and staff members about the potential of a merger.
The response has been "overwhelming, encouraging and positive," he said.
Rich Mountain Community College's enrollment of 932 students makes it the state's smallest college. The college started in 1973 as a vocational-technical school and later became an arm of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. In 1983, it became a community college, opening with 290 students after Polk County voters passed a 5-mill tax to support it.
Now, the Mena college at the foot of the Ouachita Mountains serves Polk, Montgomery and Scott counties with satellite campuses in Waldron and Mount Ida.
"My wife's grandmother was one of the city elders that went out that beat the drum that got the tax passed to be a community college," Wilson said. "The founders of Rich Mountain Community College would be appreciative of the conversation that's being had by the Rich Mountain board of trustees in this decision-making process right now."
When he first began evaluating a merger, Wilson said, he considered what was in the best interest of the students and what was in the best interest for the community in the long term in being able to have Rich Mountain a viable option.
"We're fiercely independent, and we want to keep the school here," Wilson said. "But we also realize that when you're the smallest community college in the state, things can happen."
Many of the students who graduate from Rich Mountain continue their educations at UA-Fort Smith. The biggest question that comes up is will joining the UA System allow for a stronger relationship with more four-year schools, Wilson said, adding that the future is bright for a strengthened two-year and four-year connection.
A merger would open the door for Rich Mountain students to more program development, along with a new "prestigious" diploma with the UA System brand on it, he said. Faculty and staff members will likely notice little or no change, he said.
"I think that our community is so tightknit that they can understand and appreciate that as much as we love our independence here as being a stand-alone, we are the smallest community college in the state," he said. "My population isn't going to allow for me to grow twice as large as we are now. Our community values this institution so much that I believe they understand that there is an outstanding opportunity to join a flagship system. I think they understand the importance of it."
Wilson said he plans to raise the possibility of the merger with Rich Mountain trustees next month.
Five years ago, Wilson shelved the idea. But today, he said, the timing is better.
"It's like a small business," he said. "The change in higher education is occurring as it does in any business. And any nimble business that isn't doing anything different in five years is going to be in trouble."
NW News on 03/28/2016