An accrediting agency has approved the merger between College of the Ouachitas into the Arkansas State University System, the last regulatory requirement needed to make the union official.
The Malvern college will be officially known as Arkansas State University Three Rivers, beginning Jan. 1.
The board of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits all of Arkansas' public higher education institutions, approved the college's "change of control" request Tuesday. A two-page letter from the commission, informing the college of the vote, states only that its rationale was the college "meets the approval factors" for the request.
It's the latest community college merger in an era of higher-education consolidation nationwide. The merger means more than half -- 12 -- of the state's 22 public community colleges are now members of state university systems, most having joined in the 1990s and 2000s.
The common theme behind mergers is that campus leaders say systems have resources their smaller colleges can't afford to provide on their own.
For College of the Ouachitas, $6 million in insurance liabilities could have affected the college's ability to borrow money. The college's employees have been on state insurance, but the ASU System has a self-funded health insurance program.
The college faces other, less unique challenges.
Like many other community colleges across the nation, it's seeing drops in enrollment each fall. Preliminary figures released by the Arkansas Division of Higher Education this fall counted 1,155 students enrolled, down 20% from the fall before. About 45% of the students -- 517 -- are concurrently enrolled high school students, a much smaller share of which attend the college full-time.
But President Steve Rook said he's excited to be joining a growing university system.
"We are really excited about it," he said. "Working with the ASU System staff already since February has been a joy, and we're going to get a lot of support from them that we couldn't get on our own."
The college also will be the first school based outside of Arkansas' northeast quadrant for the system. According to system trustees, that makes the merger beneficial to the system.
System President Chuck Welch said in October that the pending merger with Henderson State University down the road in Arkadelphia presents opportunities for both schools.
The university system did not issue a statement about the Higher Learning Commission's approval, but officials have expressed their excitement for months about the chance to expand the system and its footprint in the state. The sentiment is the same this week, spokesman Jeff Hankins said, adding that the college will be a "terrific addition" to the system.
While College of the Ouachitas has no more regulatory obstacles preventing the merger, becoming Arkansas State University Three Rivers takes more than board votes.
The college had seven pages of assignments to do to transition. An institutional name change means new email domains, employee name tags, stationery logos, highway signs, business cards, legal paperwork -- pretty much any document that has the college's name on it. Many of the organizations the college needs to change its name with require varying levels of documentation to support it, Rook said.
It's a tall task, but one the campus and many of its employees are familiar with. The college changed its name from Ouachita Technical College to College of the Ouachitas in 2011.
College staff members already knew what they needed to do, Rook said.
Earlier this month, the college removed its campus signs. Rook said he's ordered new signs with the new name that should arrive before students return to campus in January.
Metro on 12/13/2019