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

Nearly 600 undergraduate applicants admitted to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the fall of 2018 ended up not enrolling in any school at all.

Delays in financial aid and outdated approaches to recruitment led to "onboarding challenges," according to the university's new strategic enrollment management plan, which was released to university employees Thursday. The campus closed Friday for winter break.

University leaders have put together 56 pages of ways to improve recruitment and retention of students. That will address a decade of declining enrollment that has the university looking to slash millions of dollars from its budget and restructure its operations.

Enrollment projections included in the plan anticipate enrollment reductions for the next two years before evening out in the fall of 2022. With 9,581 students counted this fall, UALR expects 9,040 students next fall, a drop of 5.6%. The next fall, an enrollment drop would leave the university with fewer than 8,900 students, more than a decade after peaking enrollment at more than 13,000 students.

This fall, the university reversed a trend of declining new undergraduate students. That, and keeping that going, will benefit the university later on, the plan states.

The university expects a 2% enrollment increase in the fall of 2023 from the fall of 2022, and a 3% enrollment increase the next fall, putting the university back above 9,300 students.

[DOCUMENT: University of Arkansas at Little Rock Strategic Enrollment Management Plan » arkansasonline.com/1222ualrplan/]

The plan includes three central goals over a five-year period: improving marketing and digital outreach, student recruitment and onboarding, and student outcomes.

It's intended to be a working document to assist with a continuous process of bettering the school.

"It is an imperfect beginning to a long-term strategic enrollment planning process," interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Cody Decker wrote in the email to university employees introducing the document.

The plan notes what the university has done well and what it has done poorly.

It's done well at increasing graduation rates for first-time-in-college students and closing the graduation gaps among races. UALR also has a steady, slightly below the national average (72%) first-year retention rate of 70% of first-year students.

However, its six-year graduation rate is well below the average for institutions similar to UALR -- 39% for full-time students. The plan sets a goal of increasing that to 44% over the next five years. It must emphasize retention across faculty and staff members, and find means of supporting students outside of the classroom, the plan states.

"We must provide additional support for students in crisis, regardless of class level, normalize that support so that it does not stigmatize students who take advantage of it, develop more programming for some populations (e.g., students with children and first generation, transfer, and military students), and work to close completely the equity gap between students who identify as African American or Black and Caucasian," the plan reads.

RECRUITMENT

To improve recruitment, the university will strengthen relationships with area high schools and school districts, which produce about 65% of the university's freshmen. Likewise, it will build stronger relationships with community colleges and area businesses that offer tuition assistance to employees.

It will get the whole campus involved, too. Recruiters are revamping campus tours, and they will begin handwriting thank-you notes for prospective students who attend various UALR events. The faculty will ideally contact prospective admitted students about majors, careers and other opportunities within their colleges.

To capitalize on its appeal -- though declining -- to transfer students, the university has already guaranteed admission for people who have received associate's degrees from their most recent accredited colleges. Upcoming transfer events at community colleges will include waived application fees and on-the-spot admissions and scholarships for eligible students, the report states. Those events will require laptops, wireless internet cards and other things the university must purchase.

The university has increased the scholarships available to transfer students who meet certain academic criteria. The Trojan Transfer Scholarship provides between $2,000 and $4,000 to students with 3.0 grade-point averages at their original institutions.

UALR also intends to pursue more nontraditional students, a population the university has always sought to cater to. Students age 25 and older make up smaller portions of the student population now than they did 10 years ago -- about 43.5% of undergraduates (not including high school students) this fall, down from 47.8% in 2009.

As the university's graduate student population continues to decline, leaders plan to target prospective students with information about high-need professional programs and posting on LinkedIn to draw in working professionals who'd like to further their educations.

The university won't change everything.

For example, it will continue to do something it's been doing for years: emphasize online courses and programs. About 28.4% of the fall 2019 students were online-only. That's up from 13% in 2009.

The number of online-only programs has increased nearly sixfold in just five years, from 10 in 2015 to 57 in 2019.

And in 2019, two-third of students -- 67% -- at UALR take at least one online course. Only about one-third are face-to-face only. Ten years ago, 40% took at least one online course.

However, the plan notes, retention rates are lower for online-only students (66%), so the university will have to look at ways to increase that.

ADMISSIONS

The speed of admissions has increased, thanks to admissions cross-training among different staffs. The university now issues decisions on a student's application within 24 to 48 hours of the application being submitted.

To help students enroll, the university will revamp its admissions packets. Packets distributed to admitted students are now personalized to the student and come in multiple forms, one for freshmen and one for transfer students. In the future, they'll also contain items such as lanyards and stickers.

But one of the biggest obstacles for admitted students has been obtaining their financial aid packages.

"Financial Aid & Scholarships has recently recommitted itself to training and professional development," the plan reads. "It is clear that there has been a lack of training involving federal and state financial aid programs in the past and a renewed emphasis on training and developing staff will improve the efficiency of the office."

Financial aid advisers will now be assigned a specific set of students. That's a contrast to the system now, in which students do not have designated financial aid advisers. The university ultimately hopes to have financial aid packaging complete for students within 24 hours of each student completing all requirements for financial aid applications.

The university hopes to diminish processing times for awarding scholarships, as well. That will in part be done by removing duplicate data entry practices by implementing new recruitment management software.

STUDENT SUCCESS

Data will play a big role in determining what causes students to drop out.

Beginning next fall, the university will start a mandatory academic recovery program for students on academic probation. The university, among other things, also will "seek funding" for two academic coaches and a social worker to meet students' needs.

Also in the fall, the university will implement a peer mentoring program in conjunction with the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College to improve transfer student retention.

But the university recognizes that finances can cause students to stop attending, even when they want to continue.

UALR plans to reach out to current students who may need financial help to "offer assistance" to prevent them from dropping out.

"We will continue to assess and adjust the scholarship model, work to make sure our students know their financial aid options, and understand the conditions of continuing eligibility of aid they receive, but we will need to use additional means to address the financial insecurity of many of our students," the report said.

SundayMonday on 12/22/2019

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