Arkansas Colleges Shrinking, and 'Cliff' Still Looms

Arkansas Colleges Shrinking, and 'Cliff' Still Looms
Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education (Karen E. Segrave)

A recent college attendance dip in Arkansas doesn’t reflect the “enrollment cliff” that higher education leaders have harped about for years. It’s been more of a slow roll down to the edge.

“The cliff, a result of a fall in birth rates after 2008 and the financial crisis, isn’t going to hit until 2025,” said Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education. “What we’ve seen so far has a lot to do with the COVID pandemic” and its economic aftershocks, not to mention its utter disruption of traditional education models.

“We took a huge nosedive when we had to go virtual” with instruction, Markham said. “Then the following fall, we saw a big decline in enrollment. High school students did not get to visit campuses, and many decided to go into the job market as it heated up.”

The total headcount of students in Arkansas’ 24 four-year schools and 23 two-year colleges fell from 173,887 in 2011 to 145,695 in fall 2021, a 16.2% decline, according to figures from the Arkansas Department of Education. That includes an 11.2% drop since 2016, and 1.1% from 2020 to 2021, but that number was skewed by pandemic behaviors.

In fact, Markham and college leaders like Bill Smith and Thilla Sivakumaran of Arkansas State University and Southern Arkansas University President Trey Berry see potential for a “post-COVID bounce” as classroom and dorm life return to something closer to pre-pandemic routines.

But they are also relying on online classes and remote learning experiences to attract and keep students, part of a nearly universal effort to grow their prospect pool with graduate and international students. That effort includes Arkansas State University’s Campus Querétaro, which serves about 1,000 students northeast of Mexico City.

As they prepare for the coming demographic dip, colleges are working harder than ever to retain students, and seeing signs that more potential students deterred by COVID concerns are starting to apply for college.

‘I Think It’s Time’

“We’re already seeing students that kind of held off a couple of years ago, and last year, coming back and saying, you know, I think it’s time,” said Berry, whose four-year university in Magnolia has long made a mission of keeping enrollment up. Arkansas’ eighth-largest university by student count, SAU saw no decline from fall 2020 to fall 2021, and even saw its student body grow this spring to close to 4,500 students.

“We have students right now from 39 countries and 35 American states,” Berry said. “Though we have the legacy of being a regional university, and that’s important for our communities and close-knit alumni, we’re finding growth in these ways.”

Smith, the chief communications officer at Arkansas State and a content marketing expert who has raised the Jonesboro campus’ profile with a mobile app, an overhaul of social media messaging and a visual rebranding, said he’s not sure colleges will ever go back completely to 2019 routines. “But we’re living with COVID, having more on-campus instruction, having more students taking tours, and we’re holding recruiting events again,” Smith said. He does expect a downturn in transfers from junior colleges “because people are going into the workforce.”

Fall enrollment numbers for Arkansas’ state schools ranged from an 11% yearly decline at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville — largely attributed to a plunge in “concurrent students,” those getting high school and college credits at the same time — and a 5.5% increase at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, which had more than 29,000 students.

When enrollment declines universally, private colleges and flagship universities like UA tend to claim a larger share of the shrinking pie. Arkansas’ private schools with 1,000 or more students all grew between fall 2020 and fall 2021: Harding University in Searcy was up 6.6%, John Brown University in Siloam Springs 5.2%, 3.5% at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, and 4.1% at Hendrix College in Conway.

Bigger-name state schools and private colleges, explained Michael Moore, vice president for academic affairs for the University of Arkansas System, have more students whose parents and grandparents went to college, whereas regional universities and junior colleges attract more underserved populations and first-time college-goers.

“As demographics shift, the flagships and the elites can just broaden their reach, trying to scoop up students that maybe would have gone to a community college or smaller university,” Moore said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where he and many other Arkansas educators were attending an accreditation conference last week.

“Because of their reputation, they can change the scope of their recruiting or change their admission practices,” Moore continued. “By digging a little deeper into the applicant pool, some can even see an enrollment increase. But they are taking students who would have previously gone to other schools.”

Community colleges bear the brunt, said Markham, the higher education director. “On the two-year college side, we’ve really seen a big hit. It’s a bit of a perfect storm because their enrollments are inversely correlated to the economy. In any environment in which unemployment is tiny, you’re going to see a drop in college enrollment. As terrible as it is to say, the best thing that can happen to two-year colleges is a recession.”

Nationwide, college attendance has plunged from a peak above 21 million in 2010 to 19.7 million in fall 2020, according to Statista. A local example, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, had 13,000 students in 2010, but just 8,295 last fall. To combat the slide, the Division of Higher Education is expanding financial aid to nontraditional students and carefully studying employment trends to determine what skills and instruction are needed in the workforce.

“The first thing, which we’ve been working on since before the pandemic, is helping students who are not typically served by higher education, because this is one pool we are going to need to reach,” Markham said. “We’ve expanded our financial aid portfolio to target prospects like part-time students and students who enroll in short-term, maybe even non-credit, workforce credentials programs.”

The second emphasis, she said, was a “strategic decision to identify occupations where we see a gap between supply and demand.” The analysis works with industries to look five years into the future, asking “what are we underproducing for?” Markham said. “We’re going to incentivize the takers, those who want to participate, and develop paths that lead to positive career outcomes. We will use our financial aid programs to try to draw students into occupations that will guarantee high-paying jobs on the other end.”

Arkansas State, Southern Arkansas and other campuses are leaning into their online offerings, offering hybrid instruction including both remote and in-classroom work, and partnerships allowing students to attend two-year schools and seamlessly transfer their credits to four-year schools.

“Five or six years ago, our online population was around 2,300,” said Sivakumaran, an Arkansas State vice chancellor and director of its Division of Enrollment Management & Global Engagement. “We were at 6,000 students [out of a total of about 12,600] this past spring. We’re now a national brand in terms of competing for students considering Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, etc. We get students from all 50 states, and we made a strategic decision to recruit students from beyond our system, from the other 22 schools in the state. We have partnerships with the community colleges of Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas and Utah, and are creating different pipelines to increase enrollment basically from everywhere.”

Transfer students are down and will continue to be, and regional universities will feel the effect keenly, Sivakumaran said, “but all signs point to us being up in enrollment this fall, and we had a terrific international class this past spring.”

Henderson State Vulnerable

Smith, of Arkansas State, said the broader idea was diversifying the student mix, including international students, freshmen out of high school, hybrid students and transfers. “It’s not just one pot,” he said. “We have a very diverse portfolio, which I think will flatten any declines.”

Smith said that he and Sivakumaran were speaking only for Arkansas State in Jonesboro, not the particular difficulties of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, which joined the ASU system last year deep in financial distress.

“They are having some major introspection now, but this financial situation wasn’t caused by COVID or the cliff,” said Markham, watching from her post at the Division of Higher Ed. “Problems had developed prior to the pandemic, and they’re in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Henderson’s crisis is going to be “really painful, and people aren’t going to like it,” she said. “But it’s probably going to be necessary if they are to survive. Of all the institutions in the state, Henderson is the one that’s most vulnerable.”