Little Rock’s Arkansas Baptist College made modest gains this fall to rebuild enrollment and restore financial order after the disastrous 15-month presidency of Joseph Jones.
Regina Favors, interim president of the private historically black college since September 2018, reported an up-tick in enrollment from 523 last fall to 554 this semester.
Favors believes the addition of several programs combined with increased recruitment efforts will help push enrollment toward the fall 2020 goal of 800 students.
The open-enrollment school, whose financial lifeblood is Pell grants, is working out of an estimated $4 million hole left by Jones while working to return its student headcount to a break-even level of 766 students.
“Everything is kind of nip and tuck until you do that,” said Fitz Hill, president of Arkansas Baptist from 2006-16 and incoming executive director of the newly reactivated Arkansas Baptist College Foundation.
Jones sued the college for wrongful termination, challenging the board of trustees’ contention that he was fired for cause on Dec. 18, 2017. Filed in July 2018, the case is scheduled for a four-day jury trial next August in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
Aiding the fiscal restoration at the college is a three-year deferment from semiannual payments on a $30 million bond issue tied to upgraded facilities. Arkansas Baptist was among 13 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) granted deferments from principal and interest payments on loans through the U.S. Department of Education’s HBCU Capital Financing Program.
Among the new programs at the college is a partnership with Conway’s New Life Church. Forty-two students are taking Arkansas Baptist courses at the church, and that number is expected to hit 100 for the spring semester.
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Arkansas Baptist is also working with Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing, and it is collaborating with Little Rock’s Baptist Health to help students obtain nursing degrees and associate degrees.
Sixty students at Life Academy in Memphis are taking courses through Arkansas Baptist. The academy mentors high schoolers to overcome troubled homes or problems with the law to get in shape for possible college entry.
“That’s a big thing for us, and we’re pleased about that,” Favors said.
This year, Arkansas Baptist also partnered with Apple Inc. and Tennessee State University in Nashville to bring coding and creativity experiences to campus. The effort is in conjunction with Little Rock’s Philander Smith College, Shorter College in North Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
The goal is to get the school and faculty accredited, Favors said. “That’s really a big step for us.”
Arkansas Baptist is in the early stages of improving its energy infrastructure to cut costs and increase efficiencies. The college is working with Meridian Hospitality Group of Canton, Ohio, to install a 1.62-megawatt solar array across campus in 2020 as part of a 25-year power purchase agreement.
“The array will handle about 60% of the campus load,” said Scott Hamilton, adviser to the Arkansas Baptist board of trustees and former director of the state energy office.
The three-stage program also encompasses the installation of commercial LED lighting and analyzing the college’s HVAC system for improvements.
While taking steps to reduce energy costs, Arkansas Baptist continues to work through debts created during the Jones administration.
The bills include unpaid state tax withholdings of $91,932 for 2017 and $41,378 for chartered bus service owed to LRT Services Inc. for football team transportation in 2017.
“Our payroll taxes were delinquent for both state and federal, and we’re working out a payment plan with both,” Favors said. “We’re paying a lot of old debts. If we get rid of the old debt, we’ll be fine.”