SAU Bucks Trend as College Rolls Fall

Southern Arkansas University President Trey Berry
Southern Arkansas University President Trey Berry

The rugged and ornery mule carrying Southern Arkansas University’s mascot seems a fitting emblem for the institution, a diversified old agricultural school that’s stubbornly resisting a trend of falling college enrollment.

The 110-year-old university in Magnolia is adding students and academic programs while preparing to weather demographic turbulence ahead, President Trey Berry said.

The chief Mulerider entered his fifth year as university president in September by announcing the highest undergraduate enrollment in the school’s history, 3,584. Total enrollment was also up, to 4,475.

“We’ve been blessed with a growing undergraduate enrollment for the last five years, but we know like everyone else that the birth rate decline is starting to show up in college enrollment,” Berry said. “To meet those challenges we’re going to have to do new things and proven things.”

Colleges nationwide face an enrollment reckoning linked to a plunge in the U.S. birth rate that accelerated after the financial crisis of 2008. But with low costs, academic programs focused on hot job fields and an ambitious capital campaign, SAU stands out as colleges confront a world of rising tuition, record student debt and readily available jobs.

Enrollment in all Arkansas higher education fell from 173,887 students in 2011 to 156,491 last year, state figures show, but SAU has innovated to defy gravity.

Berry forged partnerships to offer bachelor’s degrees at a couple of the state’s two-year colleges, oversaw a dorm-building spree at the Magnolia campus and initiated the Love & Loyalty Campaign, in Berry’s words “the largest comprehensive fundraising program in university history.”

New Programs

The campaign, which has raised more than $18.6 million toward a $22.2 million goal, will fund scholarships, endowments and campus facilities to keep SAU attractive. The scholarships and improvements will enhance popular newer programs like engineering, cybersecurity and cybercriminology, and a coming program in poultry science, Berry said. Internet classes add to the rolls.

“We created our engineering program about five years ago, and it has been a great success,” Berry told Arkansas Business. “We’re the only state university that has a bachelor’s of fine arts in musical theater, we’ve got programs in entrepreneurship, and were the first to create a game design and animation major. Those are all things we created as magnets to kids.”

The university’s enrollment is up 9.3% since fall 2015. By contrast, the head count at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which has resorted to layoffs and program cuts, has slipped 19.4% since 2015, according to state figures. The University of Arkansas at Monticello, a hundred miles northeast of SAU, is down 21.7%, to 2,855 students.

With tuition of $6,400 a year for in-state students and about $10,920 for out-of-state (waivers are available for students nearby in Texas and Louisiana), Southern Arkansas has been recognized as one of the most affordable colleges in the nation, Berry said.

“We do a lot of recruiting in the ArkLaTex region, but we’ve been going nationwide by recruiting electronically and on the internet,” he continued. “Over 70% of our kids are on some kind of financial aid, and we work hard to help them find that aid.” The Love & Loyalty Campaign has already secured 65 endowments, much of the money for scholarships. “Affordability is going to be the greatest challenge for universities across the country for the next few years.”

HSU ‘Not Diligent’

Other state universities have seen enrollment rise — including Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, up 3.6% over five years — but the college with the steepest enrollment increase is also in the deepest financial trouble.

Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, with enrollment up nearly 15%, “was not diligent about pursuing collections from students,” according to Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education.

The Arkadelphia public university’s board voted to seek membership in the ASU System after an emergency $6 million loan from the state that came with a gentle nudge for leaders to look into system affiliation.

“ASU is now helping Henderson collect on those delinquent student accounts,” Markham said, adding that HSU had “gotten out of control in allowing students to carry balances forward from semester to semester.”

Last month, the ASU System reported to Legislative Audit officials that more than $1 million in past-due funds had been collected, nearly a fifth of the shortfall.

Markham said the state’s two-year colleges have been in an enrollment free fall since 2011, with 2019 numbers leveling off. The state’s universities fared better for about five years, peaking with nearly 100,000 students before falling steadily for the last four years, to 96,000.

“When unemployment is low, we see declines at two-year colleges. We’ve seen something similar more recently with universities, but it hasn’t been as pronounced, because they are less sensitive to workforce conditions. If you are going to go to the U of A, you’re going there whether unemployment is low or not.”

Indeed, enrollment is up slightly over the past five years at the flagship university in Fayetteville, where 27,559 were enrolled in the fall; in 2015, that number was 26,754. “So universities have had a shorter fall, declining gradually over four years,” Markham said. “Demographically, when we talk about smaller high school class sizes, we’re looking for the big dip to hit about 2025. That’s the first year that the first notably smaller graduating class will matriculate, so we’ve got a few years to plan for that.”

State Game Plan

Markham discussed several state strategies to fight falling college numbers, including pushing up the rate of graduates going on to college, and reaching out to older potential students. One initiative will encourage more high schoolers to finish FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“Graduating classes may shrink, but our college-going rate in Arkansas is low — fewer than 55% of our kids go to college — and that means even a smaller pool of kids translates into a pretty large population of students aging into college.”

Arkansas also has one of the nation’s lowest attainment levels by adult college students. “We’re going to focus on re-engaging adult students, but it’s a hard demographic to crack, despite talk that they’re low-lying fruit. They’re ripe to come back to college, but they don’t want to because they’re in the workforce.”

Getting even a fraction more graduates and adult students in the door could “mitigate the demographic dip,” Markham said. While some states expect high school graduation numbers to fall 15% by 2032, Arkansas’ graduation rate is expected to remain flat. Still, that’s a jolt to schools that for decades saw enrollment go up practically every year.

Arkansas’ private colleges are facing even steeper enrollment declines than state schools, a trend Arkansas Business reported on last year.

Markham noted that some states require all public colleges and universities to belong to a state system like UA’s or ASU’s, a path allowing more state control over the competition for students. But the Division of Higher Education takes no position on system membership, she said. Pulaski Technical College became the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College in 2017, about the time that Rich Mountain Community College in Mena also joined the UA’s collection of six four-year universities and seven two-year colleges.

“Most recently, in September, College of the Ouachitas in Malvern became Arkansas State University Three Rivers,” Markham said. “Henderson’s board has voted to join the ASU system, but that transition isn’t expected to be complete until next January.”

Just last month, SAU’s Berry and Black River Technical College President Martin Eggensperger signed an agreement to offer certain SAU undergraduate degrees at BRTC’s Pocahontas and Paragould campuses, nearly 300 miles from Magnolia. A year ago, Berry announced a partnership with National Park College to offer the first bachelor’s degrees ever at the Hot Springs institution. Students complete two years enrolled as NPC students, then the next two as SAU students studying in Hot Springs.

Berry, an optimist, keeps looking up.

“We hope to get our first doctoral program approved soon, and it would be the first doctorate in education offered south of Little Rock,” Berry said. “We know we can’t sit back on our laurels. We have to be nimble as the job market and student interests change. We’ve got to react.”

Arkansas Public Universities: Enrollment Trends

  Fall Term Percent Change
  2019 2018 2015 2015-2019
ASU 13,891 14,058 13,410 3.60%
ATU 11,829 12,101 12,054 -1.90%
HSU 4,037 3,959 3,529 14.40%
SAU 4,475 4,468 4,095 9.30%
UA 27,559 27,778 26,754 3.00%
UAFS 6,265 6,557 6,710 -6.60%
UALR 9,581 10,515 11,891 -19.40%
UAM 2,855 3,132 3,646 -21.70%
UAMS 2,727 2,758 3,021 -9.70%
UAPB 2,498 2,579 2,658 -6.00%
UCA 10,869 11,171 11,754 -7.50%

Total State Higher Education Enrollment, All Institutions
Fall Terms

Source: Arkansas Division of Higher Education