Colleges See Need For Northwest Arkansas Outposts

Colleges See Need For Northwest Arkansas Outposts
Board of Trustees Chairman Ric Clifford announces plans for a Washington County expansion of Northwest Arkansas Community College. The Bentonville school is eyeing at least half of 39 acres in Springdale near Arvest Ballpark as the location. (Rob Smith)

When Northwest Arkansas Community College leaders outlined a five-year plan in 2011, expanding beyond Bentonville was among their top priorities.

Approximately 40 percent of the school’s more than 8,000 students are from Springdale, Fayetteville and other towns in Washington County. Operating out of leased space at multiple locations away from the main campus would one day be unfeasible for the two-year college.

Demand was there. All NWACC needed was a permanent location.

That location is closer to becoming a reality, following a recent announcement of plans to build a permanent Washington County campus on pastureland near Arvest Ballpark in Springdale. Details of the sale are still being worked out between Philip Taldo, owner of the 39 acres, and the college’s foundation. There are still focus groups to be scheduled to determine specifics of what NWACC will offer, but the school’s leaders have no doubt that the region’s growing population can support their expansion plans.

“This growth has been steady for the last several years,” said NWACC President Becky Paneitz, who is retiring June 30. “There is opportunity here.”

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NWACC isn’t alone in identifying that opportunity.

As the region has grown — an average of 30 new residents a day since 1990, according to statistics provided by the Northwest Arkansas Council — so too have the post-secondary offerings in Benton and Washington counties. While the University of Arkansas enrollment topping 24,500 has been well publicized, other schools in the region are growing as well.

John Brown University in Siloam Springs is extending its footprint with a satellite office in Rogers centered on degree completion. Others — like Harding University in Searcy, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and Drury College of Springfield, Mo. — have established or are working to establish a presence in the area.

Local leaders like those at the Northwest Arkansas Council are hopeful the expanding educational opportunities will lead to more economic growth.

Shortage of Degree-Holders

Businesses looking at relocating or expanding into northwest Arkansas are often impressed by what they see.

One of the few negatives, though, is that just over 25 percent of adults in the region have education beyond high school. It’s better than the statewide average of 19.5 percent, but lags behind the national average of 33 percent., a project developed by the council and aimed at degree completion, uses Bureau of Labor statistics from 2011 to illustrate the importance of postsecondary education. The unemployment rate in the area, per, is nearly double when comparing high school graduates with bachelor’s degree holders. Median weekly earnings were at $1,053 for bachelor’s degree holders and $638 for those with only a high school diploma. Associate degree holders were earning about $6,760 more per year than high school graduates.

A more educated workforce is a more employable and more attractive workforce, said Mike Malone, president and CEO of the council, which works with local chambers of commerce and companies in the region to improve northwest Arkansas.

“From the perspective of growing area companies, they’ve got a real appetite and need for better-trained talent,” Malone said. “Some companies are having to recruit that talent in because we can’t turn out enough graduates in fields that they need. So permanent facilities like the one that is being announced [in Springdale] for NWACC, the expansion at JBU, the growth at UA and UAMS Northwest are all key to turning out the well-trained, well-educated workforce that employers need.”

Harding provides an example of how the population boom and company needs are fueling education growth in the area.

The university began offering a pair of education-focused master’s degree programs in a leased, 3,000-SF building in 2005.

A year later the square footage used had doubled, and by 2008 Harding occupied eight classrooms and two office suites totaling 12,000 SF.

In January, the school opened its own 12,000-SF building with four office suites and eight classrooms.

The building, which is owned by the school, allowed Harding to reach a northwest Arkansas enrollment of 500, its highest since opening it satellite campus eight years ago.

As the number of students and the space have grown, so have the courses offered. Harding now has 14 degree programs, ranging from bachelor’s degrees in education and business to an MBA program that is totally online.

“When we came to northwest Arkansas we didn’t come to compete with other schools or programs,” said David Skelton, director of Harding’s location in Rogers. “We wanted to offer different programs than other schools and work with non-traditional students. We have come a long way since using someone else’s facility. The growth has been such that we could afford and justify having our building.”

Directly across from the main campus of NWACC sits an office for Drury College that will focus on online education.

Proximity to Springfield, Mo., makes the Benton County location a natural for Drury, said Kristy Nelson, marketing director for the university’s College of Continuing Professional Studies.

“We have a really strong alumni network in the area,” Nelson said. “The location is a natural extension for us to set up an office in the Bentonville area to work with our alumni. We’re working closely with NWACC on some articulation agreements to help their students work toward a bachelor’s degree.”

Drury’s degree completion program is perfect, Nelson said, for students who finish up the associates program at NWACC. Construction on the office was completed in March, and Nelson said officials are still “working to get furniture in the door.” Drury is also looking for someone to run the offices, which will offer two different bachelor’s degree programs in leadership and a degree in business administration. Nelson said the operation is “still a work in progress,” but the school is confident that demand will be there.

Are there too many options? Malone doesn’t think so. He sees plenty of opportunity.

“We need more bachelor’s degree holders. We need more certificate holders. We need more technically trained workers,” Malone said. “We’ve got workforce demands across the region. We hear that from almost all employers in the region, so permanent homes and expansion of higher-ed institutions are key.”

Post-Secondary Schools in Northwest Arkansas

Four-year Universities

  • University of Arkansas
  • UAMS Northwest
  • John Brown University
    Siloam Springs, Rogers
  • Harding University
  • Drury College
  • Ecclesia College

Two-year Colleges

  • Northwest Arkansas Community College

Technical Schools

  • Northwest Technical Institute
  • Synergy Tech