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story.lead_photo.caption University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- A decrease of less than 1% in total enrollment at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville -- the first dip since the 1990s for a school once among the fastest-growing nationally -- can be explained by a decline in the size of the freshman class and improved four-year graduation rates, the university's top admissions official said.

UA's fall enrollment of 27,559 is down from 27,778 students a year earlier, as of the 11th class day.

The change comes in part because of an approximately 8% decline in the incoming freshman class, said Suzanne McCray, UA's vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions.

"We've prepared for it and planned for it from a budget point of view," McCray said.

Preliminary total enrollment also dipped for some of the state's other large universities, including Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas.

For UA, several reasons contributed to the incoming freshman class shrinking to 4,601 compared with 5,005 a year ago, McCray said.

There have been demographic changes in the state and the region, McCray said.

The number of students from outside Arkansas declined the most among first-year students, to 2,172, this fall compared with 2,465 last year, McCray said. Slightly more than half of the incoming freshman class, 2,382 students, are Arkansans, McCray said. Last year, the incoming freshman class had 2,494 Arkansans, McCray said.

UA's enrollment increased by 50% from the fall of 2005 to the fall of 2015. Those gains were largely because of out-of-state students, mostly from Texas. Bloomberg reported this year that among "flagship" universities, UA had the highest percentage growth in full-time enrollment from 2007-16.

McCray said she didn't have a state-by-state breakdown for the incoming freshman class.

She said recruiting students is competitive. Demographic changes nationally -- particularly in the Northeast where reports describe an expected decline in the college-going population -- mean that schools likely will start trying to lure students away from Arkansas, she said.

At UA, "we're adding new scholarship dollars so that we can continue to be a best buy for our in-state students and also continue to attract high-achieving students who contribute to our university and are from out of state," McCray said.

On Wednesday, UA announced that $5 million was being added to the school's scholarship budget to create 1,100 new awards for the 2020 recruiting cycle. The announcement said the new scholarships were being paid for "from other parts of the university budget."

UA's undergraduate total of 23,025 students decreased by 1.5% from 23,386 students a year ago, according to university data.

Along with announcing enrollment, UA described improvements in its four-year graduation rate.

That rate "increased from 42.1% to 51.8%, in just four years. This means we are really making progress on students graduating on time, and thus taking on less debt," Jim Coleman, UA's executive vice chancellor and provost, said in a statement. The 51.8% rate is based on a cohort or group of 4,871 students, according to a separate UA report not yet updated with the latest graduation rate percentage. The 42.1% rate four years earlier was based on a cohort of 4,414 students.

McCray noted that students who graduate within four years affect the student count on campus.

"It's a thing to celebrate, and it also moves people on, so you're going to have fewer people in your enrollment total," McCray said.

Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, in a statement, said the new $5 million in scholarships "will expand our efforts" to improve retention and graduation rates.

UA reported a six-year graduation rate of 66.2%, up from 65.5%. The 66.2% rate is based on a cohort of 4,300 students, according to a separate UA report not yet updated with the latest graduation rate percentage. The 65.5% graduation rate was based on a cohort of 4,550 students.

While undergraduate enrollment dipped compared with last year, enrollment in UA's Graduate School increased by 146 students to 4,170, the university announced. Strengthening graduate education is a priority for UA under Steinmetz, who took over as chancellor in January 2016.

Other large schools in the state also reported enrollment declines.

ASU, whose main campus is in Jonesboro, reported 1,391 first-time students, down 174 from the previous fall, a decline of about 12%.

Total enrollment, excluding ASU's Campus Queretaro in Mexico, fell to 13,356 this fall compared with 13,709 last fall, a decline of about 2.6%.

Chancellor Kelly Damphousse, in a statement, said fewer high school graduates going on to college has affected universities statewide.

ASU also reported a double-digit percentage decrease in its international student enrollment.

"The demand is there, but many of the students we admitted were not able to get student visas," Damphousse said in a statement.

Arkansas Tech University reported an incoming freshman class of 1,726 for its Russellville campus, an increase of 21.7% compared with 1,418 students a year ago, said Sam Strasner, school spokesman. The 1,726 is a record for the Russellville campus, according to the university.

But total enrollment fell slightly to 9,709 for the Russellville campus compared with 9,968 the previous fall. President Robin Bowen, in a statement, said efforts to help students succeed academically have resulted "in a shorter period of time to graduation for our students," leading to the enrollment decrease.

"The overall headcount enrollment decrease is attributable to our intentional efforts to help students achieve their academic goals on an efficient, condensed timeline," Bowen said.

The University of Central Arkansas reported an incoming first-time freshman class of 1,840 students, down from 2,033 last fall. Total enrollment for the Conway campus dipped to 10,870. Based on state Division of Higher Education data showing a total head count of 11,177 students at UCA, enrollment fell by 2.8%.

"Enrollment numbers are important, but they can fluctuate with the number of graduating high school seniors and trends in unemployment rates," UCA President Houston Davis said in a statement.

Metro on 09/12/2019

CORRECTION: Robin Bowen is president of Arkansas Tech University. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported her title.

Print Headline: Student count at UA declines a bit to 27,559

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