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Pulaski Technical College is now a part of the University of Arkansas System.

The community college's accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, gave it the green light Wednesday to become the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College. It is now the sixth community college in the system. The University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain will be the seventh after the Mena school finalizes property details, the system said.

"It's just very exciting," said Margaret Ellibee, now Pulaski Tech's chancellor. "It's a new chapter in Pulaski Tech's history, and I know it's going to be a very positive chapter."

UA System President Donald Bobbitt began eyeing "possible partnerships or agreements with Arkansas institutions of higher education" in January 2016, after his board gave him approval to explore them.

It came as state policymakers have asked higher-education institutions to become leaner and more efficient, helping more students earn a technical certificate or a degree with the resources schools already have.

For the UA System, it resulted in netting the state's smallest community college (Rich Mountain) and the state's second-largest (Pulaski Tech). Boards of both two-year schools, along with the system's 10-member panel, unanimously agreed to the union last year.

Rich Mountain received its OK to join the system from the Higher Learning Commission last month, college Chancellor Phillip Wilson said.

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"I could not have asked for better support from Dr. Bobbitt and his staff as well as everyone associated with Rich Mountain," Wilson said. "Rich Mountain is thrilled to be part of such a great tradition."

Pulaski Tech's all-clear needed approval from legislators on a bill that detailed the role of boards for technical colleges after a merger with a university or university system. Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed that bill into law Tuesday.

The UA System -- already the largest in the state -- will be home to six universities, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; seven community colleges; and seven other units, including a stand-alone, online-only university, eVersity. The second-largest higher-education system is the Arkansas State University System, which includes the four-year university in Jonesboro and four community colleges in Beebe, Newport, Mountain Home and -- since 2015 -- West Memphis.

For the UA System's two newest members, joining the system will give students and faculty members more academic opportunities and will ease transfers into other system schools, their leaders said.

Rich Mountain is working with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to create "2+2" partnerships, in which a student can earn an associate's degree at the Mena institution and easily transfer to Fort Smith for a bachelor's degree program, Wilson said.

Pulaski Tech will explore similar academic partnerships with other system schools, including the just-across-the-river University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Ellibee said. The North Little Rock-based college will begin to offer a certificate of proficiency in emergency medical science; a technical certificate and an associate of science in emergency medical science; and an associate of science in surgical technology. Those programs were previously offered by UAMS.

Faculty members at Pulaski Tech are also looking at ways to collaborate with eVersity, whether it means teaching for the online-only school or having eVersity employees help the college design robust online courses, she said.

The boards of trustees for Pulaski Tech and Rich Mountain will turn into boards of visitors, an advisory role. Both will also continue aligning school and board policies with those of the UA System.

Pulaski Tech has already sorted out most employee benefits, including health insurance. For the first time, it will offer short-term disability -- 12 weeks at 60 percent salary -- at no cost to its employees.

Its foundation -- with $1.9 million in assets -- also unanimously approved joining the University of Arkansas Foundation, which will take effect July 1.

Rich Mountain recently informed the Arkansas Higher Education Consortium -- a group of mostly stand-alone schools that band together for health insurance premiums -- that it was switching over to the UA System's provider, United Medical Resources.

Once employees finish enrolling for health insurance coverage, the college will then follow up with retirement benefits, Wilson said.

"When we were in the early stages of discussion with Dr. Bobbitt, he and I agreed that there was value in making certain decisions over time," Wilson said. "We both felt that the entire process could ultimately take two years to work through all the policies and transitions required by a merger. One of the many positives about this merger has been Dr. Bobbitt's approach toward letting both sides figure out what works best."

Rich Mountain has decided to stick with its current management structure for its foundation, which has about $3.7 million in assets, Wilson said, adding that officials will evaluate joining the system's foundation in the near future.

"Over here in west-central Arkansas, there's definitely a pull to the University of Arkansas -- always has been, always will be," he said. "We are very excited to be a part of a statewide brand like the University of Arkansas System."

Metro on 02/02/2017

Print Headline: Pulaski Tech officially joins UA System

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