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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Baptist College is shown in this file photo. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

Arkansas Baptist College had experienced blow after blow by the time Joseph Jones took over its helm last fall.

The historically black university in Little Rock had seen enrollment fluctuations, gotten in -- and back out -- of debt, been subject to ongoing financial monitoring from the U.S. Department of Education and was once at risk of losing its accreditation. The school overcame some of the challenges, dealt with new ones that have cropped up and is hoping that implementation of a new strategic plan will help solve others.

The plan -- called "The Way, the Truth, the Life" -- is a guide for Arkansas Baptist to become more competitive in the higher-education market, help its students succeed, develop strong leaders within the college and become fiscally solvent, leaders said.

"Right now, you know, I would say that probably if a student has a GPA and finances et cetera, that if they had a choice between Arkansas Baptist or Hendrix or UCA, they would probably opt to go there because it's obvious they have more resources," Arkansas Baptist College board Chairman Kenneth Harris said. "What we're hoping that this plan will lead us into is certainly being more competitive in terms of the higher education market and that we will graduate students who are highly competitive and can function globally because that would be an indication that the school has a reputation and has raised its visibility within the state as well as nationally."

Arkansas Baptist, founded in 1884, started piecing together the plan last December, about a month after its accreditors cleared the college from its risk of losing the status. Among its many concerns, the accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, wanted evidence that the institution was planning, Jones said, and so the college brought on KJ Associates to facilitate building a new five-year strategy.

The consultant, Kenneth Jones, first gathered data from an emailed survey "to get our finger on the pulse of the organization." Some 100 people responded to the survey, telling administrators what they wanted to see the college focus on in the coming years.

Along with the survey, Kenneth Jones analyzed Arkansas Baptist's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. From there, he helped the campus community review the college's purpose -- which did not change -- and create goals and a plan to achieve those goals.

"This is interactive strategic planning, using a wholesale approach," Kenneth Jones said. "The simplest way to describe it is if you can get enough people in the room and they are the right people, and you ask the right questions, the wisdom from the organizational system will emerge from those people."

The end product includes five broad goals, which fall under each part of the title.

"This is clearly based off the Bible. We want to be very, very intentional about using God's word as a way to frame how we do our work over the next five years," Joseph Jones said. "The way we do things has got to change. It just got to. We got to do things differently. The truth: We have some hard truths we have to face. And the life: We got to figure out a way to really, really increase the quality of life for our students and our faculty."

Under "the way," the college has set two broad goals of student success and rebranding and fundraising. Under "the truth," goals of fiscal solvency and academic effectiveness were set. "The life," consists of a goal of operational and leadership innovation.

Its administrators have carried out measures to bring Arkansas Baptist up to speed. The college offered for the first time last summer online general-education courses, a way that Joseph Jones hopes to increase access and revenue.

The institution also has adopted ancillary items such as the purchase of a new student learning management system and student information system, which will shift some manual processes to technological ones. Those changes will ease, as an example, registration for students and link the rest of the college's systems, Joseph Jones said, adding the systems can help the college make data-driven decisions and reach students who may need help earlier.

Another objective is to increase student enrollment to 900 by 2021.

The college had a high of 1,082 students in fall 2012 and 843 in fall 2016. This fall, some 575 students enrolled at Arkansas Baptist, according to state Department of Higher Education data.

Arkansas Baptist suffers from a misconception: Many believe the school to be a two-year college, rather than a four-year university, Joseph Jones said, adding that a reintroduction to the community could help.

Student Government Association President Dreamer Daniel, 21, of Atlanta said she's seen friends and athletes earn associate's degrees at Arkansas Baptist and transfer to another school for degree programs not currently offered at the Little Rock college or for professional sports ambitions.

Daniel, who is also Miss Arkansas Baptist College as a junior this year, weighed whether she would leave the school after two years, but ultimately decided to stay to finish out her accounting degree at the school -- a "more stable" move, she said.

The school also estimates that about 60 percent of its student base are athletes and that some seven of 10 students are male.

"It's nice to see a lot of males because it's pushing our African-American men ... to continue to go because they have been knocked down so much in the world. Some of them have decided to come to school to better themselves," she said. But, she noted, "the diversity could be much better and way more expanded with the mixture of women and gentlemen."

Joseph Jones wants to even out those levels, in part by offering more academic degrees than the current 13 bachelor's degrees and eight associate's degrees. Officials are looking to add another seven majors next fall and certificate programs in religious studies for local churches.

"The mission is staying the same: We are still going to accept those students who are on the margins," he said. "And we want to work with them. However, I will say -- and I've been talking with everybody on the board and everybody else -- in order for us to make that next leap, we're going to have to recruit and attract high-performing students because that's the only way you're going to raise the standard."

Harris, the college's board chairman, said he doesn't want administrators to lose sight of the fact that enrollment is paramount to the school's finances.

"I think we want to certainly have a diversified student population, but by the same token, if our ability to keep our enrollment intact is based on the fact that we can attract more athletes, more males, so be it," he said. "Because Arkansas Baptist, our budget is driven by student enrollment."

Arkansas Baptist doesn't have the same size endowments or donor bases that other higher education institutions have, meaning the small, private school needs to operate within its resources, Harris said. In fiscal 2016, the college reported on its 990 Forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service that nearly 80 percent of its total $17.6 million revenue came from student tuition -- which is mostly from federal Pell grants, which are awarded to low-income students and do not need to be repaid -- and auxiliary enterprises.

The college's plan aims to increase its public and private grants and gifts and stabilize its financial situation. The college currently averages about $600,000 in gifts annually and is set to double that, Joseph Jones said, adding those funds would be devoted to scholarships and operational funds.

What fiscal solvency boils down to is better business practices, he said.

As an example, one of the "huge" problems the college had was in processing financial aid. The federal Education Department has listed it on Heightened Cash Monitoring II, which requires the school disburse federal student aid funds to the student or parent borrower and submit manual reports before it is reimbursed by the government. The status slows down cash flow significantly.

"What they're [the federal government] saying is you gotta process each student, send me their file, and make sure all their stuff is in there. That's the processing part," he said. "And then if you have everything, then I'm going to disburse the money. And so that is one of the reasons we've had cash flow issues is because we can't really, we don't know how much money we're going to get every month. Because if a student doesn't have a transcript, if a student doesn't have their tax form, we have to go out and chase it down to be able to get that file to get the money for them."

Not having a full file is common for the college, which enrolls many students who are the first to attend a higher education institution, he said. But Joseph Jones is hoping that moving the financial aid office under the business office's purview will help improve the college's cash-flow.

The institution has also "trimmed the fat" -- nearly $1 million -- by trying to get better deals, he said. In March, the college instituted cost-saving measures, including reducing employee pay, but that had since been restored.

Joseph Jones has started putting together a fiscal solvency plan and is hoping to ask the federal Education Department to remove the college from the heightened cash monitoring status next year. He had wanted to make the request earlier but ultimately decided on a delay after "a lot of personnel changes" and a "hiccup in payroll in July."

The hiccup was a perfect storm, he said, of submitting pay to the government, government processing time and the holidays. An employee had submitted pay by nearly a week late and has since been fired, Joseph Jones said. The school experienced payroll delays late last month as well.

It was unclear as of Friday whether the latest blip will affect the school's application to be taken off fiscal monitoring.

Kenneth Jones, the consultant, said he was glad the college's leaders recognize Arkansas Baptist's importance to the community and are taking steps to improve it.

"Where they are right now versus where they were when we began this, they're poised to really move the institution in a great fashion," he said. "But you don't move a large system like this quickly."

A Section on 12/04/2017

Print Headline: Arkansas Baptist looks to improve; Plan focuses on solvency, academics

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