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Drop in enrollment at Arkansas universities, explained

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nyssa Kruse | September 30, 2021 at 1:38 p.m.
University of Arkansas students walk past Old Main on the U of A campus in Fayetteville in this 2014 photo.

This story is a part of The Article, your guide to Arkansas news and culture, presented by the Democrat-Gazette. Sign up for The Article's weekly newsletter here or to see stories that have appeared in past newsletters, go here.

Fewer students enrolled in the state's public universities this fall compared to a year ago, according to preliminary data from the state Division of Higher Education.

Eight of the 10 public universities that mostly enroll undergraduate students saw declines that were not offset by gains seen at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

How did the gains and losses shake out across the various campuses?

Between 2020 and 2021, overall enrollment fell at Arkansas State University, University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas Tech University, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Southern Arkansas University, Henderson State University and University of Arkansas at Monticello. (Go here to see a table laying out the drops for each campus).

The greatest decrease in enrollment was at Arkansas Tech University, which saw a drop of 10.9%, followed by University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, which saw a drop of 9.4%.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville saw enrollment increase 5.5%. UAPB’s enrollment increased by 3.7%.

Taken together, the data showed overall enrollment across all public universities fell 1.2% from 2020 to 2021.

How does this year’s drop compare to past years?

Total combined enrollment at the state's public universities, including University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, declined for the fifth consecutive year, falling from more than 100,000 students in fall 2016 to 92,188 students this fall.

For all schools, public, private and community college, undergraduate enrollment declined for the 10th consecutive year, falling from 142,442 students in fall 2011 to a preliminary count of 109,287 this fall.

That is a drop of 23% in 10 years.

What’s causing enrollment to decrease?

Colleges in Arkansas and elsewhere for years have been tracking population trends showing anticipated declines in students of traditionally college-going age, said Michael Miller, a professor of higher education at UA-Fayetteville.

Miller said that competition for in-state students comes from the big players in online education, like Arizona State University, as well as from campuses outside of Arkansas that seek to bring in large numbers of out-of-state students.

Rising costs and the creation of microcredentials that offer certificates in particular skills, such as coding, also affect people’s decisions of whether to go to college.

Read more about enrollment at state colleges, including private and community colleges, from reporter Jaime Adame.

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