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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — New students tour the UALR campus in this 2015 file photo.

The number of students in Arkansas' colleges and universities continued to decline in the 2018-19 school year, preliminary figures released by the state Department of Higher Education show.

Overall, enrollment fell by 1.3 percent from the previous year, according to the department's report, fitting in with a 5.4 percent enrollment decrease at institutions in the state over the past five years.

"That's not earth-shattering. That's kind of natural. Up or down 1 percent, we kind of consider that a flat enrollment rate," department Director Maria Markham said in an interview Wednesday.

Still, she said improved economic conditions after the recession and Arkansas' low unemployment rates likely contributed to lower campus head counts. That's especially true for two-year colleges, which have not seen an increase in the number of students enrolled overall since 2014, she said.

"The economy was a lot weaker five years ago," said Michael Pakko, chief economist at the Arkansas Economic Development Institute. "The job market in Arkansas really started to pick up momentum in 2014."

Arkansas' enrollment decline fits in with a national trend, with schools across the country facing lower enrollment numbers, said Ed Venit, lead student success researcher at the Washington, D.C., education research organization EAB.

Lower birthrates during and after the recession mean the downward trend will likely continue, Venit said. Additionally, children who grew up during the recession are now college-aged and more frugal, he said.

Fewer students, coupled with a trend of decreased state funding, result in many schools facing budget deficits.

"It's kind of a double whammy," Venit said.

Markham said some institutions in Arkansas may have seen changes in their head counts related to individual strategy.

Some schools may have put additional focus on recruiting high school students for concurrent enrollment, such as Arkansas Tech University and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, while others may have decided that's not a part of their core mission, she said.

Others may have seen a decrease after tightening their admissions standards or have seen a boost a few years after doing so, such as Henderson State University, Markham said.

Jim Coleman, UA-Fayetteville's provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, spoke about freshman enrollment at a meeting of the university's faculty senate earlier this month.

"You can see that we have leveled off the increase in freshmen. We were down by 72," Coleman said, referring to the 5,019 first-time entering freshmen this fall.

"Part of the reason that we were down a little bit is because of our intention to make sure that at least 50 percent of the new freshmen were Arkansans, and we do have a record number of Arkansans in the freshman class," Coleman said. The first-time freshman class includes 2,507 students from Arkansas, according to preliminary data from UA-Fayetteville.

Based on preliminary totals, overall enrollment, including graduate students, increased to 27,778 at UA-Fayetteville this fall compared with 27,558 last fall.

Andrew Rogerson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, held an open forum at the campus' Donaghey Student Center on Friday, allowing a crowd of faculty and staff members to air their concerns about declining enrollment and budget cuts. The school's projected enrollment numbers and plans to suspend "nonessential" travel, training and conference attendance for university employees were announced publicly last week.

"Every university in America is dealing with this," Rogerson said. "Let's come out and be a strong one."

The state Department of Higher Education report shows that UALR had an enrollment dip of nearly 10 percent, the second-largest drop among the state's public, four-year universities. Overall enrollment decreased to 10,525 students, down by 1,099 from fall 2017.

Rogerson cited a survey the school sent to students who left UALR despite being in good academic standing and not having significant debt. Some of the reasons for not continuing included the high cost of tuition and fees, difficulty with the advising department and inconvenient class times.

The eStem Public Charter High School on the UALR campus, which welcomed 10th-through-12th grade students in 2017, also came under fire during the meeting.

James Houston, an information technology employee, said he has a niece and nephew who chose different public universities in Arkansas after touring UALR's campus and seeing high schoolers.

Other staff members said UALR's recruitment efforts should focus on Little Rock residents, as well as on adult and nontraditional students.

William Hall, who works in the school's public safety department, shared his story. Hall said he was struggling with homelessness when he had a chance encounter with a physics professor, who encouraged him to pursue the field. He now holds a Bachelor of Science degree.

"A big part of it is grassroots, simple-type activities," Hall said of increasing enrollment. "When I came to UALR, I literally came from the streets."

Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

*CORRECTION: The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education had 318 graduate school students, Harding University had 1,147 graduate school students, John Brown University had 608 graduate school students and Williams Baptist University had 17 graduate school students, according to preliminary enrollment information from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. Private institutions had a total of 2,090 graduate school students. The number of graduate school students for the public and private higher education institutions was 19,860. The numbers were inadvertently left out of a chart on enrollment.

A Section on 09/24/2018

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  • RBear
    September 24, 2018 at 7:24 a.m.

    This will create a problem in the labor force. Granted, not everyone is suited for college and we definitely need trade workers. But if we don't have a good pipeline of college graduates coming out, the higher skill jobs will become even harder to fill, putting a strain on information economy companies. Those can easily be offshored which will create even more challenge for the US workforce.
    The economic policies of this administration are not taking these factors into account when dealing with trade issues or workforce development or even immigration. It thinks there is this magical pool of American workers ready to meet all the demands of the economy and there's not. We really need someone at the helm who has a clue.

  • GOHOGS19
    September 24, 2018 at 10:20 a.m.

    the market will correct the problem RBear

  • Popsmith
    September 24, 2018 at 11:24 a.m.

    Sounds like people are figuring out that our education system isn't giving us what we need. A lot of the college stuff should be taught in high school.
    Books are an example of the rip off of higher education.

  • HenryP
    September 24, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    College is crazy expensive.......

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    September 24, 2018 at 12:29 p.m.

    Half the kids that do go dont want to/ need to, half the kids that need to, cannot.

  • RBear
    September 24, 2018 at 12:47 p.m.

    gohogs how so? That market correction would require some labor adjustments. As I stated, if tech jobs become scarce, those can be offshored easily and there's really nothing Trump can do about that.

  • MidtownBliss
    September 24, 2018 at 1:35 p.m.

    What is earth-shattering (and completely ignored in the narrative) is the nearly 50% drop in enrollment over five years at Pulaski Technical College. How do you lose almost half of your students in five years?

  • LRCrookAtty
    September 24, 2018 at 1:37 p.m.

    The problem started with Bush's "no child left behind!" Our students graduating from high school are not prepared for college (hell, probably shouldn't have graduated high school). I taught at the university level for several years from the late 90s into the 2000s. The requirements to "dumb down" the curriculum was insane. Then they came out with courses to prepare you for college. These classes were for the idiots that couldn't get a minimum score on the ACT to enter first year. They didn't count toward your degree, but could be paid by student loans. 75+% of the students that entered this program never finished and were a drain on the education system. Then for students in my Calculus 1 class, they couldn't even pass the simplest of exams. However, I was required to pass a certain percentage to meet goals (One semester I did not have a single student above a 43%). If you have a master level degree or higher earned after 2010, I would say that it is equivalent to most high school diplomas prior to the 80s.

    Something seriously needs to be done with the high school education in Arkansas. I looked at the requirements and some of the courses they allow to meet graduation requirements are a joke. Hell, get back to teaching the basics and offer some of the stupid courses as electives. If students cannot pass then earmark them for trade schools. This is getting ridiculous to have people graduating from college that cannot do the basic tasks required for a job. I have actually hired three different people with GPA above 3.2 from college and they could not perform the basic tasks required for the job.

  • Sawbuck
    September 24, 2018 at 2:40 p.m.

    You're right, Midtownbliss. I didn't believe you until I clicked the chart at the end of the story. The two-year schools averaged a 19% decrease in enrollment over a five year period, but the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College is down 48%-- more than twice the average! It can't be the economy because they grew during the 1990's when the economy and job growth was good. My guess is that it's an issue of leadership or quality of instruction. HenryP makes a good point too. Pulaski Tech had a large bump in tuition a few years ago. What irks me is that they'll probably receive the same amount of state monies as they have in the past notwithstanding the drop in enrollment.