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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL --FILE PHOTO -- Students make their way across campus in November 2017 after a morning rain shower at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. ( staton breidenthal / Staton Breidenthal)

University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale got to go before University of Arkansas System trustees Thursday to talk about an influx of cash, rather than UALR's dwindling finances, which she was appointed to fix.

An anonymous donor has given the university $25 million, the single-largest gift in UALR history, to go toward new efforts to help students enroll and graduate.

Drale's presentation was brief, and trustees' response to it was even shorter, but all agreed that the gift will go far.

"Not only will we be able to help more students get to college, but once they get here, we'll be better able to keep them on track and to help them persist to graduation," Drale told trustees.

"I would add bless the giver, because it's come to a place that sorely needs it," Trustee Cliff Gibson said.

Need-based scholarships will account for $15 million of the donation, and the scholarships will be distributed to students over a five-year period, Drale said.

The other $10 million will go toward an endowed fund for the university's efforts to help students graduate, Drale said. That will provide about $400,000 per year to hire "student success coaches" and put together a team that will intervene when a student has been identified as at risk of dropping out.

"This is going to be tremendously helpful for a lot of our students," Drale said.

The university's enrollment has dropped each year for about a decade, reducing the university's revenue by millions of dollars and pushing it toward academic retrenchment to be carried out in the next few years.

For the coming academic year, the university proposed a budget that assumed its enrollment will drop 10.5%, more than the 8.8% drop recorded last fall. Fall commitment numbers compared with this time last year show a drop of 6% to 7%, so far.

The university, which enrolled fewer than 9,000 students last fall, recently developed an enrollment management plan designed to recruit and retain students until graduation.

The donation will be used to implement that plan. In deciding what to do with the money, Drale said she focused on select uses that have proven effective at similar institutions, namely urban institutions.

"Student success coaches" can assist students with specific subject challenges they face. The money for the initiative also will help employ students as part-time peer mentors.

Similarly, a team will contact students who have been identified as at risk of dropping out and help figure out what the students need in order to stay in school. Such obstacles could include academic struggles, or financial or personal difficulties. The team will have a social worker to work with students. Also, students can access emergency funds through the university.

The students can identify themselves as struggling, or advisers or instructors could identify them for the team.

Across the nation at some universities, such as Georgia State University, students are identified using data analysis of dropout predictors, and intervention has improved retention rates.

UALR has large populations of students -- namely first-generation college students -- who need a little extra attention, Drale said.

The university also has large numbers of students transferring in. The latest federal data, from the fall of 2018, show that UALR's student body was 8.7% transfer students, compared with 6.9% nationwide.

UALR students also have, on average, slightly higher financial needs.

More than a third of UALR students received Pell grants during the 2017-18 school year, according to the latest federal data. That year, 36.1% of UALR students received Pell grants, compared with 34.8% nationally.

The anonymous gift, which will average out to $3 million per year, will substantially increase UALR's scholarship capacity, which currently totals about $6 million or $7 million, Drale said.

The university has a lot of merit-based scholarships right now, she said.

"But we have a lot of students that aren't quite meeting that merit-based criteria but are still very capable," Drale said.

Award of the need-based scholarships will take into consideration a student's existing aid package, rather than being a set amount.

New students, transfer students and continuing students could be eligible for them. So the scholarships can help the university recruit and retain more students, Drale said.

"There really aren't a lot of restrictions on how we use the scholarship money in terms of eligibility," she said. "It really gives us the maximum level of flexibility that I think is going to be really important for us."

University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale

A Section on 05/22/2020

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