Fall enrollment steady at ASU System schools

FILE — Henderson State University is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Enrollment for the Arkansas State University System is essentially flat compared with the same time last year, according to preliminary figures.

Total enrollment for the system is 25,177 students, only 35 fewer than this time last fall, according to the ASU System. ASU Three Rivers, ASU-Beebe, Arkansas State University, and ASU-Mountain Home all reported enrollment increases this fall, while ASU-Newport, Henderson State University, and ASU Mid-South all reported double-digit decreases.

"Enrollment has been a challenge the last couple of years with covid, but I'm really pleased where our campuses are at and the progress we're making," said Chuck Welch, president of the ASU System. "I'm optimistic about where we are today and where we're headed in the future."

Enrollment and student credit hours are important to colleges and universities partly because of the revenue they bring in from tuition and mandatory fees, as well as from on-campus food services and housing.

Roughly a quarter of people in Arkansas age 25 or older have at least a bachelor's degree, which places Arkansas among the bottom five states in that category, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the percentage of people age 25 and older who had completed a bachelor's degree or higher is about 38%.

Enrollment gains at ASU System schools are due to "the creativity on our campuses and adherence to their missions," Welch said. ASU-Mountain Home, for example, has grown from one technical program a decade ago to seven, now, in order to meet local, regional, state, and national workforce demands.

ASU Three Rivers' 11th-day enrollment is up nearly 17% from last fall's 11th-day enrollment, 1,843 compared with 1,578, according to the ASU System. The school's official fall 2021 enrollment -- which is released later in the fall than 11th-day figures -- was 1,597.

The school reported a roughly 75% increase in this freshmen class, some of whom may have been lured at least in part by scholarships, as the university awarded several to students in technical programs as part of a $200,000 anonymous donation the university received earlier this year that has to be spent by Jan. 1, 2023, said Chancellor Steve Rook, who believes "dipping our toe" into athletics will also "have a positive enrollment impact" in the future. The school will field baseball and softball teams beginning in 2023.

ASU-Beebe is up 4.5% from last fall's estimates, 2,905 to 2,780; last fall's official enrollment was 2,776, according to the ASU System.

ASU-Beebe also has a higher number of first-time freshman and transfer students compared to last year, according to Chancellor Jennifer Methvin. The incoming freshmen class is up 24% from last year, "we're up about 5% in student credit hours, and we have a really, really engaged student body this fall."

Arkansas State University reported a 2.4% increase, at 14,109 students -- the second-highest figure in university history -- compared to last fall's estimate of 13,772, according to the ASU System. Last fall's official enrollment was 13,752.

"More than once I've had someone tell me that 'campus seems busy again' or 'events are bigger,' and it adds up to making A-State a great place to be," Chancellor Todd Shields said in a news release from the ASU System. "I want this university to be the place where all Arkansans feel welcome, and I know our Enrollment Management team has a plan to take this improvement and continue to grow."

First-time international students at Arkansas State are up 5% this year, roughly 100 more students are living on campus this year than last and the university has its second-best first-to-second year fall retention rate at 77.6%, according to the ASU System. Arkansas State's highest enrollment was in the fall of 2017, at 14,144 students.

Arkansas State enrollment figures include the university's campus in Mexico, which has a headcount of 918 this fall. That's up from 894 students at Campus Queretaro last fall.

ASU's Campus Queretaro students are considered Arkansas State students and receive Arkansas State degrees, but the ASU System doesn't request state funding for those students, according to Jeff Hankins, ASU System vice president for strategic communications and economic development.

Enrollment at ASU-Mountain Home is up nearly 1%, from 1,247 to 1,258, according to the ASU System. Last fall's official enrollment was 1,246.

ASU-Newport and ASU Mid-South are down nearly 15% and nearly 11%, respectively, according to the ASU System. Last fall, Newport's preliminary enrollment was reported as 1,828 (final enrollment was 1,829), while preliminary enrollment at Mid-South last fall was 1,093 (final fall enrollment was 1,077), and those figures decreased to 1,560 and 976, respectively, this fall.

Enrollment at ASU-Newport is "up in several technical programs," however, said Chancellor Johnny Moore. The nursing program is up 20 students this year, while the certified nursing assistant program is up 24.

Henderson State's preliminary fall enrollment is 2,526, compared with 2,914 last fall; official enrollment last fall was 2,919, according to the ASU System. First-time freshmen account for 437 this fall, compared to 416 last fall, with graduate enrollment up from 689 to 708 this fall.

Henderson State has undergone "radical changes in curriculum and staffing" -- Henderson State eliminated 25 degree programs and 88 faculty positions as part of budget cuts following three years of financial instability -- so the decrease in returning students wasn't unexpected, but it's "remarkable for them to be up for first-time and graduate students," Welch said. "Partnerships" with other schools, entities, businesses, and organizations "are a key part of reimagining Henderson, and we look forward to those."

Facing an immediate budget deficit of at least $5 million in 2019, the university's president, Glen Jones, and the university's finance chief, Brett Powell, resigned, and the university began transitioning into the ASU System. The merger, which received final approval from the state Legislature and was signed off by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2021, allowed Henderson State to keep its name but eliminated its board of trustees.

"This is a multi-year project, but we are definitely seeing progress" at Henderson State, Welch said. "We expect an increase this year in cash on hand" at the university.