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LITTLE ROCK -- Fewer people enrolled in Arkansas' colleges this fall, part of a long-term trend exacerbated by the economic challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Campus leaders said a variety of reasons are to blame for the shrinking number of students: Economic hardship related to the pandemic and the uncertainty of additional financial help, students deferring their registration after admission to the spring term or later, and the challenges of caring for children with less access to child care or while children attend school remotely.

When enrollment was better than expected, campus leaders have cited improved retention of students.

Enrollment at individual institutions swung by as much as 24.1% fewer students or 30.8% more students than last fall's preliminary numbers.

College leaders are still evaluating what the numbers mean in terms of the financial impact for which they may or may not have prepared. The number of credit hours registered for translates into more tuition dollars than the overall headcount, and international students translate into more tuition dollars than in-state students.

College leaders had to make predictions during the first few months of the pandemic, when they formed and approved their budgets for the fiscal year that started July 1. So, many reacted conservatively with expectations of fewer students.

At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, reserve has covered two consecutive years of budget deficits caused by unexpectedly low enrollment. But this year a less than expected decline in enrollment will translate into millions more dollars in the university's coffers.

But for cash-strapped Henderson State University, hundreds fewer students than expected will mean "adjustments" to the university's budget.

Preliminary numbers published by the Arkansas Division of Higher Education show 133,454 students enrolled in public and private four-year, two-year and nursing colleges in Arkansas this fall, excluding concurrently enrolled high school students.

That compares to 138,005 students enrolled last year, according to the department's fall 2019 final enrollment report, which also excludes concurrently enrolled high school students. It's a drop of 3.3% from the final fall enrollment report, or 4.2% when compared to the 2019 preliminary headcount of 139,288.

It's an even bigger descent from about a decade ago, when Arkansas colleges' enrolled nearly 170,000 students, fueled in part by an economy still reeling from the Great Recession.

Enrollment increased at medical colleges, including the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and two nursing colleges.

But the number of students dropped precipitously at the state's 22 public community colleges, by 9.9% from last fall's preliminary numbers. This fall, the colleges counted 31,062 students, excluding high school students, compared to 34,466 last fall and 39,990 five falls ago.

The Division of Higher Education removed high school students from this year's report because of inconsistencies in past reporting, with some institutions counting seats versus students, spokeswoman Alisha Lewis said. High schools students pay far less in tuition than traditional college students and some colleges enroll far more high school students, as a percentage of their total enrollment, than others.

Enrollment at the state's two largest colleges -- the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University -- didn't change much. UA enrolled two fewer students from last fall, and ASU enrolled 63 fewer students. The drop was bigger at the University of Central Arkansas, where the number of students dropped by nearly 400 to 10,057, and at Arkansas Tech University, where enrollment dropped by more than 650 students to 8,146.

Enrollment increased at Southern Arkansas University by 0.3%, thanks to more graduate students.

Enrollment at Henderson foretell tough choices for the university, which struggled last spring to make ends meet because of limited cash on hand to pay vendors and employees. Enrollment dropped 11.8% from last fall, from 3,570 students to 3,147. The university budgeted for a 5% dip in enrollment.

"We know we have work in front of us," said Jim Borsig, the newly appointed interim president of the university.

Administrators will revise the budget for the rest of the year. In doing so, they'll keep an eye on whether additional federal stimulus money will be available.

Borsig said he thinks more students might enroll in the spring, compared to the fall, unlike most years, because of the number of students who appear to have sat out the fall semester wondering what would happen with the pandemic and university instruction.

"There could be students who come back in the spring. There could be more students who continue from the fall to the spring," he said. "The spring is a challenge, but we're going to have to make some adjustments as we move forward."

Borsig is relatively new to his position, but he believes the university's recent financial challenges posed multiple obstacles to recruiting, by limiting the university's ability to recruit and by scaring off potential students.

The biggest increase among four-year colleges was at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where leaders credit retention efforts, targeted recruiting, improved graduation rates, increased communication with students and families, the readdition of the university's nursing program, and a pandemic opening plan tailored to the results of a campus survey.

The university has 2,793 students this fall, its highest total since fall 2016, when it had 2,812. It's an increase from last fall, when 2,498 students enrolled, of 11.8%.

UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander said he expected a 10% increase this fall, bucking the cautious planning of other universities.

The university is well into its plan to improve retention and graduation rates and to boost enrollment. By spring, Alexander had already seen success. The university's six-year graduation rate for students, which he considers a key marketing tool, has increased from 23.3% for the cohort that finished in spring 2016 to 38.7% for the cohort that finished in the spring of this year.

"When parents hear that, and we show them our tables and charts, we give them a sense of the direction it's going," Alexander said. "UAPB is more academically focused.

The university's communication with students and parents rose significantly this spring and summer, Braque Talley, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student success, said.

"Students and parents felt comfortable," Talley said.

Waiving test score requirements and application fees helped, too, he said.

Enrollment continued to increase, from 646 five years ago to 839 this fall, at the University of the Ozarks, where officials have zeroed in on local high school students in recruiting. It's part of a plan for the university to play to its strengths and stretch recruitment resources farther by narrowing its focus.

Students from the Arkansas River Valley are more likely to enroll at the university than elsewhere, and that's where students have increased, said Reggie Hill, vice president for marketing and enrollment.

"If you were to back up say five, six years ago, you might have noticed 35 to 45 students from Johnson County," President Richard Dunsworth said. Now, it's more like 100 to 120."

The university also has more international students, thanks to a decades-long effort in Central America. The children and friends of former students are now attending the University of the Ozarks, Dunsworth said. International student enrollment has more than tripled in recent years, from about 70 each year to well more than 200.

The university also benefits from friend and alumni donations, including millions of dollars for scholarships and millions more for dormitories already built that could house a few hundred more students.

The enrollment story for Arkansas' community colleges was more dreary, down thousands of students.

Nontraditional students, and students with children, make up a greater share of community college students than do first-time freshman.

Many of those students work and are struggling to care for their children during the pandemic, while child care is more scarce and health concerns have pushed parents to opt for virtual learning for their children. Children who do go to school or day care could end up sent home to quarantine if exposed to a person infected with the virus.

On the first day of classes, Aug. 24, John Lewis, University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College dean of admissions and financial aid, had to help out for a couple of hours answering phones in the college's welcome center.

Lewis said he fielded calls from people trying to drop classes.

"They said, well, their children are home and now they're having to learn virtually," he said. Or they couldn't find child care."

People who are enrolling are having to update their financial aid applications, which is a process of seeking a "professional judgment" that allows a college administrator to determine that a student's need has changed, altering their aid eligibility.

More students are doing that, Lewis said, and he expects more than usual to do so as the semester goes on.

"Probably most students don't know that they can do that," he said, adding that the college is trying to spread the word via email and the college website.

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