by Mark Friedman on Monday, Oct. 29, 2001 12:00 am
Perkins, a former trustee of the Phillips Community College, thought his community would lose local control if the two-year college merged with the university system.
The judge denied his request, and the school merged with the UA at the end of that year, making it one of the first two-year schools to take advantage of a legislative act that encouraged merging the two-year schools into the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University systems.
Since then, six two-year colleges have decided to join the UA system, and four community colleges have formed partnerships with the smaller ASU system.
ASU has also merged with Delta Technical Institute at Marked Tree and is in the process of adding a two-year campus at Heber Springs.
"Early negotiations" on even more mergers are under way, according to Lu Hardin, director of the state Department of Higher Education, but he wouldn't be more specific.
These days, Perkins doesn't think about the merger too much. But the other schools do. The two-year schools that have joined a system say they have benefited by being able to offer more degrees and enroll more students. The UA and ASU systems say they benefit by receiving the students who leave the two-year school and transfer to one of its four-year schools.
But some four-year colleges that aren't part of the system are concerned about the effect the mergers are having on their student enrollment figures.
And some two-year schools have flirted with joining UA or ASU but left them at the altar, opting to stay independent and not relinquish local control of their board of directors, which it must do to merge.
When Mississippi County Community College in Blytheville considered joining either the UA or ASU system in 1996, the systems lured the board of directors with promises of more resources, lobbying assistance and delivery of junior- and senior-level "upper division" courses, said President John P. Sullins.
The staff, students and community thought long about it but eventually declined.
"The board was concerned about losing the independence and autonomy as a local institution," Sullins said.
The college did form a partnership with ASU, so the university could offer upper-division classes to the students.
Since making the decision five years ago, the college hasn't looked back, he said.
"I don't think the decision [not to join] has had any impact on what we have experienced since then," Sullins said. "We have continued to grow and develop as an institution."
But enrollment numbers and the school's budget tell a different story.
In fall of 1995, there were 2,014 students at the community college. This semester, there are 1,840, an 8.6 percent decrease.
Its total budget for 1994-95 went from $7.2 million to $11.4 million for the 1999-2000 school year, a 58 percent increase. The average increase among all two-year colleges during that period was more than 65 percent.
Steven Jones, chancellor of the renamed Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, thinks concern about local control is misguided.
Two-year schools don't have true local control anyway, he said, since the state provides the school with funding.
"The Legislature and the state agencies set your guidelines and parameters and tell you what you can do and what you can't," he said.
The University of Arkansas System did create a local board of visitors for each of its two-year colleges to advise the UA System about local issues. The two-year colleges still control the curriculum, and the systems don't mandate what's being taught.
"We have never submitted a recommendation to the University of Arkansas board that they have not approved," Jones said. "So our board of visitors is still making those decisions.
"The local board will tell you they haven't seen any changes [in control] and that things have only gotten better."
The UA merged with Phillips because "we thought by joining forces we could provide more educational opportunities in the Delta," said B. Alan Sugg, president of the UA system.
The alignment has brought PCC more classes, faculty and students, Jones said.
"This has been such a strong advantage to us," he said. "I know that more students come here now because we are part of the University of Arkansas System."
Enrollment in fall of 1995 was 1,520 students, and for fall 2001 it is 2,267, a 49 percent increase. Its budget has increased from $9.4 million in 1994-95 to $16.5 million in 1999-2000, a 75.5 percent increase.
PCC also added two-year schools in DeWitt and Stuttgart to its system.
One of the attractions for the students is having the UA's name attached to the campus, Jones said.
"Some may feel the name recognition is beneficial in terms of marketing their college," said Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Schools.
Phillips also has been able to partner with other UA campuses to offer baccalaureate degrees and master's degrees through the UA's distance-learning program. Before the merger, it could only provide associate degrees and technical certificates.
"That's really what it's all about — expanding educational opportunities for place-bound adults," Jones said.
No Expense to System
To enter the University of Arkansas System, the county where the two-year school is located has to pass a tax to support the college. In Arkansas County, residents approved a half-cent sales tax for the colleges in DeWitt and Stuttgart.
The campuses still receive their own state appropriation, which isn't funneled through the systems, and Sugg said it doesn't cost the university systems anything to run the two-year colleges because they are supported by the local tax.
Theoretically, the UA and ASU systems benefit by receiving the students who transfer from a two-year school to a four-year school within the system.
"You have the increased possibility of gaining transfer students from the affiliated schools to the four-year school after the degree," Hardin said.
But it's difficult to say how many students transfer.
Only 35 percent of the students at Phillips are there to get a degree.
"Out of that 35 percent, half of them transfer on, and an increasing number of those [students] are transferring to a UA campus simply because of the partnership," Jones said.
The systems also have the opportunity to offer other degrees.
For example, "the UA system can boast a very solid environmental tech degree in Cossatot [Community College in De Queen] as a result of the acquisition," Hardin said.
Both systems said they are not in an arms race to add schools, but the UA system hasn't turned down any two-year school that's wanted to join, and it will bring Westark College in Fort Smith into the fold on Jan. 1.
ASU, on the other hand, will only consider picking up a two-year college if it fits what it's trying to with its system, said ASU President Les Wyatt.
During the past year, ASU had three two-year schools wanting to join its system. But the only one ASU agreed to accept was Delta Technical Institute.
"The other two opportunities did not make a lot of sense, and we passed on those," Wyatt said.
"Arkansas State has not sought to acquire schools," he said. "We have given consideration to institutions who have approached us, and we've talked to them, but we're not trying to capture any more territory."
Arkansas State University only has one comprehensive institution at Jonesboro, while the University of Arkansas system has five comprehensive institutions. UA has a $1.3 billion annual budget and 12,000 employees, while ASU has 1,750 employees and an annual budget of $134.8 million.
"The University of Arkansas is huge; we're smaller," Wyatt said. "They're wealthy, we're poorer; they're more widely distributed, we're more concentrated; so it's been necessary for us to think about approaching our business in different terms."
Instead of using two-year schools as feeders for the four-year university, ASU has brought baccalaureate degree programs to the satellite campuses.
"We've been able to have our model done, and this is by necessity because we don't have much money to get it done," Wyatt said.
While both systems receive students from the mergers, Sugg said the UA's main purpose in adding small schools is to try to expand educational opportunities and to help the smaller institutions be successful, he said.
"The University of Arkansas system is a statewide institution," Sugg said. "We think we should do everything we can to expand educational opportunities in our state, and we're doing that."
The expansion has raised concern for some four-year colleges. Although Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia has seen its enrollment rise from 2,745 in 1995 to 3,127 this fall, SAU President Louis Blanchard believes other potential SAU students may have opted to enter the University of Arkansas System since it acquired the community college in nearby Hope in 1996.
How large SAU would have been otherwise is impossible to say.
"I don't feel like [the merger] helped us any," Blanchard said.
E-mail Mark Friedman about this story.
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