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Arkansas Private Colleges Stare Down Demographic, Cultural ChallengesLock Icon

6 min read

Bruce McLarty knows he’s responsible for a momentous decision that will change Harding University forever: Students can now wear shorts to class — and even to chapel, the mandatory daily devotional period.

“And it will always be known that it was done on my watch, which grieves me,” McLarty, president of the Church of Christ-affiliated university in Searcy since 2013, said in a recent interview. “I’m probably the last person who would choose to do this.”

Relaxing the dress code is an acknowledgement that recruiting students is harder than it used to be. Even Freed-Hardeman University, a Church of Christ affiliate in Tennessee generally considered even more conservative than Harding, gave up its prohibition on shorts several years ago — a fact that Harding recruiters were regularly reminded of by prospective students.

The dress code changes came too late to keep freshman enrollment from declining by about 5% this fall. Harding enrollment peaked above 7,000 in 2011 and may not break 5,000 when the official fall headcount is announced. It remains, by far, the largest of the private colleges and universities in Arkansas, but Harding’s enrollment trend line is already reflecting a combination of factors putting pressure on institutions of higher education, private and public and coast to coast.

“Alarming seems to be too charged,” said Richard Dunsworth, president of the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville, which was bucking the trend but will report a slight enrollment decline this fall, to about 850. “We’re looking at flat enrollment for the next four or five years and then something of a cliff.”

Foremost among the factors forcing colleges to rethink their business plans and their marketing is the simple fact that Americans are producing fewer babies. “The Great Recession did not simply delay births — it eliminated them,” Nathan D. Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, wrote in his 2018 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.”

But even the sluggish birth rate is uneven. Well-educated parents — those whose children are most likely to go to college — are having fewer children than less educated parents, whose children are less likely to enroll. Fertility is higher in some parts of the country than others, and those geographic variations are compounded by migration from state to state and changing immigration patterns.

The number of high school graduates in some states is expected to fall by more than 15% between 2012 and 2032, while other states may see their graduation numbers grow by 7.5% and more.

Arkansas’ high school graduation number should remain flat — no more than 2.5% above or below the 2012 figure — through 2032, according to Grawe’s calculations. But Grawe also predicts fewer white and black high school graduates in Arkansas, offset by more Asian and Hispanic graduates.

“These are issues that will be with us for a while,” said W. Joseph King, president of Lyon College in Batesville.

Other Factors

Arkansas Business tracked 15 years’ worth of official fall enrollment figures for 11 private colleges and universities in Arkansas. (See graph in gallery above.) The University of the Ozarks, Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia and Philander Smith College in Little Rock were at their peak in 2018. The rest peaked between 2010 (Hendrix College at Conway) and 2016 (Crowley’s Ridge College at Paragould).

This is typical nationwide, Grawe told Arkansas Business last week. For decades after World War II, “you had more enrollment than you had five years before,” he said. “Starting around 2015, you are looking back and there are fewer students than there were five years ago.”

Some of the current bumps in enrollment are “working off the reaction to the recession,” when many unemployed Americans were encouraged to pursue higher education, Grawe said. “But we are looking forward to a time when we don’t have more students. When you have business practices that are predicated on continual growth, that comes in conflict with the reality that we don’t have continual growth.”

All 11 of the private colleges Arkansas Business researched are religiously affiliated, and that part of the mission can be a factor in the enrollment trend. Lyon is feeling the decline in membership of its feeder Presbyterian congregations and the youth groups that served as student pipelines, King said.

“The pool is smaller, plain and simple,” Harding’s McLarty said. “The pool within the state of Arkansas, the pool within Christian higher education generally speaking, the pool within the Church of Christ — all of those trends [are] heading the same way.”

Predictions for the future of colleges and universities have ranged from dire to merely challenging, depending on how many of the factors are bearing down on a specific institution. Elite national colleges with giant endowments may never face an existential threat, according to Grawe’s research; small colleges in states with shrinking populations may find themselves absorbed or out of business.

But Grawe says his research only takes past trends and projects them forward. “There are a lot of things that could make that model break,” he said. Expanded demand for online learning models could pump up the percentage of high school graduates who enroll. Or employer acceptance of competency-based qualifications rather than traditional college degrees could chip away even more of the market.

For Harding, tension between Washington and Beijing has accelerated a decline in Chinese students, from 200 in the middle of the decade to fewer than 50.

The escalating cost of higher education is also a factor; McLarty cited “a relentless drumbeat about the exorbitant debt that people are going into and questioning the return on investment.” Both McLarty and King mentioned the Tennessee Promise, our eastern neighbor’s promise of two years of tuition-free community college or technical school, as a competitive challenge.

Grawe did not research college cost, but he noted that the cost of attending public schools has been rising faster than at private colleges, in part because state governments have found it hard to keep up the same level of subsidies as in generations past. “Will that trend reverse? Those are big unknowns,” Grawe said.

Individual Strategies

Institutions can’t control demographics, so they are crafting individualized strategies for holding onto and even growing their share of the shrinking pie. For Harding, that means relaxing the dress code and working to formalize and streamline a cooperative relationship with Arkansas State University’s community college at Beebe, 20 miles away. It could also mean, McLarty said, adding programs in high-demand fields.

At Lyon College, it means pet-friendly dorms, an e-sports team, a marching band, ROTC, fishing and trap shooting teams. “We actually have a director of affinity outreach,” President King said.

In Clarksville, President Dunsworth has grown enrollment by nearly half since 2013 by reaching out to students at home and abroad. “We went from about 35 students from our home county to this semester it will be 110,” and he expanded on a long history with students from Central America by building a new pipeline into the Bahamas.

Administrators and recruiters also find themselves having to sell parents and students on old ideas that they once could take for granted. John Brown University at Siloam Springs, the state’s second-largest private college, recently sent an email to prospective students explaining what the term “liberal arts” means.

At Harding, “We’re having to defend the value of getting a college education, and we’re having to defend the value of being a broadly read and educated person,” McLarty said. “We have to defend why we teach Bible classes. We have to defend why we teach history anymore.”

King called the college-selection process “a mystery in general,” and the obvious things that parents ask about — like academic outcomes — may not always be the deciding factor.

“Sometimes what they don’t say is the most important thing on their minds. Is she going to be safe here? Can I get there in half a day if something goes wrong? … Do I trust these people with my child?”

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