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Philander Smith College sees enrollment fall, lays off 22 employees

by Neal Earley | January 7, 2021 at 7:22 a.m.

Philander Smith College has laid off 22 faculty and staff members as a pandemic-induced drop in enrollment put the historically black college in a financial bind, its president said.

The Little Rock college laid off the employees in the first week of December after the fall semester ended, Roderick Smothers, president of Philander Smith College said. With enrollment numbers dropping, school officials projected a roughly $3 million to $3.5 million budget deficit that needed to be resolved through cuts.

Of the 22 employees laid off, 15 were faculty members and seven were staff members, Smothers said. Philander Smith College also decided not to fill 27 vacant positions, as part of the cost-saving measures.

"We don't have a large endowment, so when emergencies occur we can't tap into our endowment or our reserves because we don't have that," Smothers said. "We depend quite heavily on tuition and private giving from our alums and other partners who may give to the institution so we don't just have those luxuries."

The layoffs are significant to the college which had about 185 faculty and staff members before the layoffs, Smothers said. College officials used a formula to determine who was to be laid off with performance not being a factor, Smothers said.

For the fall semester, enrollment was at 804, according to the Arkansas Division of Higher Education, a shortfall from the predicted enrollment of around 950 students for the 2020 fall semester. For the fall 2019 semester, enrollment was 996, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"As you might imagine for a small, private, tuition-dependent institution, you know, 150 students at $21,000 per person -- that's our tuition rate -- that's a deep number, and we had to find those numbers somewhere in the budget," Smothers said.

While the college was able to stave off layoffs in the spring and summer thanks to stimulus funds from Congress, the college's board of trustees approved a plan to cut staff and faculty members in September, Smothers said.

The trend isn't just at Philander Smith College, as some colleges around Arkansas have seen drops in enrollments since the pandemic began in March. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas Tech University and Henderson State University all had a decreases in enrollment this fall, according to the Arkansas Division of Higher Education.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, all saw either no change or an increase in enrollment, according to the Arkansas Division of Higher Education.

Smaller, private colleges such as Arkansas Baptist College, Central Baptist College and Champion Christian College have also seen declines in enrollment during the pandemic, according to the Division of Higher Education.

Historically Black colleges and universities, like Philander Smith College, have been hit the hardest during the pandemic. Those institutions often cater to poorer students compared with other colleges, and Smothers said "when American higher education gets a common cold, HBCUs get the flu."

The federal pandemic relief that enabled the college to avoid layoffs eventually ran out, and Congress was still debating a second coronavirus relief package when the college made its layoffs.

As part of the coronavirus stimulus package that Congress passed in December, the federal government will forgive $1.3 billion in loans for historically Black colleges and universities, including ones at Philander Smith College. The addition to the stimulus bill was thanks, in part, to the United Negro College Fund, which helps provide scholarships for students to attend historically Black colleges and universities.

"The forgiving of this saddling debt on HBCUs is nothing short of transformational, and with this Congress can now add itself to the likes of Netflix founders Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin, MacKenzie Scott, and Bruce and Martha Karsh, who have donated considerable resources to HBCUs to make life better for those who are the most deserving and know the impact of racial inequity in our country," said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund in a statement.

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