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Just a few weeks before the first day of the fall term, Arkansas colleges and universities have far fewer students registered than at this time last year, and more so than most years, the short-term future of higher education is up in the air.

Several schools have reported fall registration declines, noting the uncertainty the coronavirus pandemic has caused.

So as a precaution, most of Arkansas' public institutions budgeted for fewer students this fall, as well as lower state funding, and cuts in their expenses.

Though that's not the case with all institutions.

The University of Arkansas at Monticello reported an increase in fall registration. As of July 14, 2,154 students were registered for the fall compared with 1,666 on July 14, 2019 -- a year that saw a more than 8% enrollment decline from 2018.

This year's registration jump includes an increase of 64 full-time freshmen.

"UAM is positioned as a competitive option, especially for in-state and regional students," Chancellor Peggy Doss said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We are cautiously optimistic with our current enrollment numbers that our student body will not dramatically decrease, and may even show growth."

At the University of Arkansas, the state's largest university, fall registration was down less than 1% as of July 15.

UA had 23,550 students registered as of that day, compared with 23,725 on July 15, 2019. The difference between 2018 and 2019 was more significant than between 2019 and 2020, data show.

At the undergraduate level, 21,007 students were registered for the fall on July 15, compared with 21,209 last year.

Rebecca Morrison, a UA spokeswoman, said a "great deal can change within a short time."

At an Arkansas Legislative Council Higher Education Subcommittee meeting last week, University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt noted that system schools have instituted hiring freezes, and cut back considerably on travel and supplies to prepare for lower enrollment.

Arkansas State University System President Chuck Welch said he was encouraged by the number of credit hours Henderson State University students have registered for in the fall, although he has maintained that enrollment is still uncertain.

HSU had 2,387 undergraduates as of July 17, compared with 2,573 last year, a decline of 7.2%, and it had 327 graduate students registered as of July 17, compared with 450 in 2019, down 27.3% from last year, according to university spokeswoman Tina Hall. The number of credit hours students have registered for is down just as dramatically, down 7% for undergraduates and 19% for graduates.

"We do think there could be some situations where institutions like Henderson could get students who stay home" rather than attend school farther away, he told lawmakers.

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley said the same could happen for her university.

She budgeted for an 8.8% decline in students this fall. The university expected a budget deficit of $6.9 million that will be covered by reserve funds. That's in part because of lower expected tuition and fee revenue, and in part because of an expected reduction in local sales tax revenue and in state general appropriations.

The biggest percentage drop in enrollment at the UAFS is in high school students concurrently enrolled for the fall term.

On July 24, 2019, the university had 437 high school students enrolled. As of July 24 this year, 381 were registered for the fall, or 12.8% fewer.

Undergraduates registration was down 9.3%, to 4,277 as of Friday. But graduate enrollment was up to 47, compared with 26 last year. Overall, fall registration so far is down 9.2% from where it was last year.

Riley called the numbers, even in mid-July, "volatile."

"Every single decision that's made, every communication that comes out does play a role in how people will make their decision," Riley said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's mask mandate will change things for some people, she said. It could make students who are nervous about going to campus feel safer and put off students who don't want to wear masks, she said.

Normally, university officials would still be going to community colleges, reaching out and offering scholarships to potential transfer students. Instead, they're using social media campaigns to get the word out.

The fall admissions deadline hasn't yet passed at a lot of universities, including at UAFS.

The pace of registration is different this year at Northwest Arkansas Community College, spokeswoman Liz Kapsner said. The college wasn't able to host orientations at its partner high schools, where students would normally have registered.

The college had 4,698 students enrolled for the fall term as of July 15. That's down from fall registration of 5,989 on July 15, 2019, a drop of 22%.

While fall registration so far is down quite a bit, Kapsner said the college still expects final fall enrollment figures to be comparable with last fall's.

"Our college staff are continuing to implement creative solutions to recruit new students and stay connected with current students throughout the enrollment process," Kapsner said in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The college had more than 8,300 students enrolled last fall, far more than were registered this July.

At Arkansas' second-largest community college, fall registration is down from 3,876 on July 15 last year to 3,485 this year.

The University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College had more than 5,500 students enrolled last fall.

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