Slimmed-Down Pulaski Tech Fits UA System

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017 12:00 am   6 min read

Pulaski Technical College had nearly 12,000 students in 2012 when Margaret A. Ellibee became its chief. Today it has about 6,000, and to Ellibee that’s a good thing.

“Our [loan] default rate on those students in 2012 was 28.8 percent,” the chancellor told Arkansas Business. “Now the rate is 14.2 percent. Our graduation rate in 2010 was 10 percent; now it’s 17. So we still have a way to go.”

The school admitted any high school graduate, and as a result had too many students who were unequipped to succeed in college. So Ellibee was happy to buck a long-term trend of college enrollment growth.

When a default rate, the share of students not making payments on federal student loans, hits 30 percent, “the feds come calling, and we didn’t want that,” Ellibee said.

Guiding the smaller student body to success is Ellibee’s top mission at the two-year school, which was rechristened the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College when it merged with the University of Arkansas System in February.

Six months into the transition, Ellibee described the advantages of the UA affiliation, including a streamlined transfer protocol. She also reviewed her tenure so far and offered an outlook for the future of the school, a rare and relatively affordable hybrid of technical college and community college with campuses in North Little Rock, Little Rock and Benton.

Ellibee described UA-PTC as a resource for striving students and a partner in providing well-trained employees for Arkansas businesses and industries. Affordability, access and academics all have to align for the institution to succeed, Ellibee said.

“When I came in, we offered access, but the other side was that our students weren’t completing, and they were leaving here with a high debt rate, a high default rate, and you can’t do that to your community.”

So in 2013 Ellibee stopped admitting basically all comers and pegged admission to minimum reading scores on standardized tests. Enrollment quickly began shrinking, along with support from some students.

Student Government Association leaders cited enrollment issues, along with the controversial dismissal of a philosophy professor, in a 2014 vote of no-confidence in Ellibee’s leadership. School trustees stood behind her, and the storm soon passed, then attention turned to the possible affiliation with UA.

Now UA-PTC’s smaller, higher-achieving student body is poised to be an asset as the state begins shifting away from enrollment-based funding next year, transitioning to a financing formula that will reward higher-education institutions for student success.

Finding ‘Synergy’
“We joined the UA System on Feb. 1, and it has been a very positive transition, particularly for our students,” Ellibee said, her six-foot-one-inch frame folded at the head of a conference table at the college’s main campus in North Little Rock. “It opened the door for relationships with other UA institutions like UA Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and for articulations with them that are wonderful for our students.”

“Articulation” is the educational term for coordinating the content of courses that are transferred between colleges and universities. Ellibee said the benefit for the UA System, headed by President Don Bobbitt, was synergy.

“That’s the word that Dr. Bobbitt used, and I think it’s perfect.”

Students will have greater access to internship and shadowing opportunities at UAMS, while the medical school will shift its paramedic/EMT program to UA-PTC starting next year. UA-PTC also gained access to IT services that it couldn’t afford on its own, including all 11 suites of the UA’s Blackboard system, an online instructional tool.

“Students we surveyed also thought that having that mark of UA would make a lot of difference to them.” With tuition of $130 per credit hour, UA-PTC’s costs remain among the lowest in the system, if a bit higher than at some other two-year schools in Arkansas.

One thing Pulaski Tech didn’t get out of the merger was more money. It didn’t result in better pay, though faculty and staff did get a “more advantageous” insurance package.

“The pay scale hasn’t changed, and there is no money that came from the UA System to Pulaski Tech, although I think a lot of people thought there was,” said Ellibee, whose base salary is $178,826, according to state figures.

“We receive $15.2 million a year from the state, and we have tuition.”

Of UA-PTC’s $44 million budget for fiscal 2017, tuition and fees provided $25.5 million, or about 58 percent. State appropriations made up some 40 percent, with the rest coming from grants, contracts and other sources.

“The beauty about Pulaski Tech is that we’re a technical college, but we’re like a community college,” Ellibee said.

“You can come here and go into welding or advanced manufacturing and go through a two-year program, and you can get certificates before you graduate. Or you can just get the certificate. And if you want to go on to UALR or to Fayetteville, you can take your first two years here and have a great university transfer experience.”

UA-PTC’s best-known program is culinary arts, based in a gleaming 60,000-SF, $16.5 million state-of-the-art Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Institute on Interstate 30 in southwest Little Rock. “The facility is great, but the people inside it are even better,” said Ellibee, a Wisconsin native who played basketball at Iowa State before taking her first job as a vocational agriculture teacher at Stuttgart High School. (Her parents had moved to Arkansas while she was in college; after Stuttgart, she went on to get a master’s in Fayetteville and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.)

“The culinary and hospitality program is turning out people going into restaurants, delis and grocery stores, hospitals and hotels, you name it,” she continued. “There’s no problem at all in getting positions.”

But she ticks off other programs she’s equally proud of, many with job-placement success similar to culinary arts.

“Our allied health programs are very good, and we have a partnership with Baptist Hospital for our nursing program. We also have respiratory therapy, occupational therapy, and we’re thrilled about taking over the paramedic/EMT programs, because they really fit our mission.”

On the business side, “there’s paralegal, information technology, accounting, and it goes on and on,” Ellibee said. “We have advanced manufacturing, welding, diesel mechanics, truck driving, auto finishing, which is basically body work, HVAC, just to name a few. In all these programs, if the students get in and achieve, they get hired.

“We can never satisfy the need for skilled welders and machine tool workers, for example,” she said.

Industry Input
Founded in 1945 as Little Rock Vocational School, the institution moved to North Little Rock in 1969 as Pulaski Vocational Technical School, becoming known as the “school on the hill” off West Pershing Boulevard. It gained college status in 1991, and has become a lifeline for many nontraditional students.

“Our average student age is about 28, but it has been coming down as we get more students straight out of high school,” Ellibee said.

Over the years, the school established partnerships with central Arkansas businesses and placed company leaders on advisory committees to help guide curriculum choices. “The business and industry reps on those committees tell the faculty that this is exactly what we need in welding, or auto; it’s a huge advantage,” Ellibee said. The college also regularly considers regional and state data on business and industry needs.

Noncredit workforce development programs tailor personalized training for businesses partnering with UA-PTC, and a new Emerging Managers Development Program has yielded great benefits for companies like PC Assistance Inc., which specializes in network management and IT security, and National Custom Hollow Metal Doors & Frames, both of Little Rock. PCA, a growing 27-employee company, turned to Pulaski Tech when it realized it needed to groom new leaders.

“It was a huge opportunity to give our people exposure to tips, tools and feedback from peers to show that their struggles aren’t unique,” said Ted Clouser, PCA’s executive vice president, who has two employees in the program. “As we grew, we knew we needed to rise up a management team, and Pulaski Tech has helped take it to the next level. It’s a three-hour-a-week program for maybe 36 weeks, and we will be excited to put more people through it.”

Giving students and industry partners their money’s worth is a constant concern, Ellibee said. “We’re conscientious in working with business and industry to offer exactly the kind of training that’s needed, and making sure that they get a very good return on investment,” she said.

Partnerships with the Bank of England and Dassault Falcon Jet are two examples, she said. “When our students come through that training for Dassault, the pass-through rate to jobs there is something like 90 percent.”

An FAA-approved aviation mechanics and airframe program based at the North Little Rock airport led to a high-paying job for the son of a UA-PTC colleague, Ellibee said, citing just one close-to-her-heart example.

‘Teachers at Heart’
The bedrock mission is serving the community and students, including a multitude who work and raise families, Ellibee said.

“Everyone who works here is a teacher at heart, empowering the lives of students, helping them to succeed academically and in life.”

Ellibee loves her job, she said, and she recalled a recent episode to illustrate why.

During a STEM camp for girls last month, Ellibee and the campers crossed the hall from the auditorium to see a young mother from Pine Bluff filling out her financial aid forms while holding a month-old infant and wrangling a 4-year-old son.

“She’s sitting there working toward a better life for her and her kids, so we’re seeing that. I’m crying, others are crying, and she’s struggling to get something out of her bag. Our staff members helped whip up the baby’s formula, and someone else went to get a toy car for the little boy. So right there we had immediate daycare. That’s what makes me most proud. Together as a team we provide education in a way that respects and acknowledges people and where they come from.”



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