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Colleges, Universities Play Vital Role In Conway’s Economic Success

6 min read

Signs greeting motorists proudly proclaim Conway the “City of Colleges,” and its three residential campuses have played a major role in the growth and development of the wider community.

“First of all we all get along,” said Terry Kimbrow, president of Central Baptist College. “Some may think that we’re fierce competitors and while we are definitely competing for some of the same students, the three schools understand that our mission can be really different at each institution and yet we can cooperate for the good of the community.”

Conway’s history of supporting higher education is a long one, beginning in 1890 when Hendrix College relocated here, followed by Central Baptist College’s forerunner in 1892 and the University of Central Arkansas rounding out the trio in 1907. Since then, all three campuses have grown to become integral parts of the community’s economy, directly and indirectly, particularly over the past decade.

At Hendrix, for instance, direct community impact takes the form of payroll that comes in at $41 million, money spent in the community by the majority of faculty and staff who live in or near Conway and alums that have a history of sticking around after graduation, about 1,000 at last count.

“I think that’s one of most amazing things, considering how small Hendrix is,” said Bill Tsutsui, president. “If you go back 50 years [enrollment was] in three digits. Yet today you can barely go to a doctor in Conway without hitting a Hendrix alum.”

Along with student body head count (1,348 last year), Hendrix has grown its physical presence significantly. Once contained to a small huddle of modest brick buildings, the school made a big splash developing The Village at Hendrix, a walkable, new urbanist community of single-family detached houses, townhouses, apartments and four mixed-use buildings.

In addition to garnering several awards for the project, The Village is today serving as a template for similar developments throughout Conway.

“I think it’s one of the best examples of how Hendrix gives back to Conway and stimulates the local economy,” Tsutsui said. “It has been a very dynamic presence. It’s really hitting its stride now as a destination for the city and, I think, a model that others have been adopting.”

Meanwhile, the University of Central Arkansas (11,754 enrolled in 2015) has developed academic programs that dovetail with business community trends, specifically through its innovation and entrepreneurship major offered through the college of business.

“Central Arkansas is a hotbed of that activity now,” said Tom Courtway, president. “A lot of students want to start a career as an entrepreneur or do some kind of real neat innovation stuff. You’ve got to have an outlet for this, so we’re providing that venue for students to learn and develop these entrepreneurship and innovation skills.”

In fact, the brand new $16.3 million, 67,500-SF, four-story Donaghey Hall on campus will devote an entire floor to such pursuits, an investment Courtway said keeps UCA students on pace with what’s developing in the wider community.

“Conway is one of the more unique cities in the nation when it comes to this,” he said. “We’re one of these places where you not only have three institutions of higher education, you have a chamber and a business community that’s very open, very innovative and very aggressive in pursuing this.

“With Acxiom here, with Hewlett-Packard here now with some of the data companies that are in Conway, it is a very fertile area for a graduate not only to gain employment but also to live and work.”

The presence of all three schools makes for a higher-than-average level of education among Conway residents — about 40 percent hold a college degree — giving the city a competitive advantage over similarly sized communities when it comes to recruiting new business. However, as the city continues to grow, the demand for skilled and educated workers is constant.

Central Baptist College’s professional adult college education (PACE) program was designed with this scenario in mind, giving the sizable segment of the population without a degree a streamlined, cost-effective means to improve skills and marketability.

“One big player we have would be the adult education program,” Kimbrow said. “It is designed for working adults and the degree programs have expanded significantly so that it meets the needs of area employers.”

More than 300 students have earned their degree since the program was launched 13 years ago. Adult learners are attracted to the ease and pace of scheduling — just one class per week, for five weeks — as a means of improving individual marketability, particularly locally.

“Ours is a community that values education, not just higher education, but education,” Kimbrow said. “Look at the millages that have been passed by big margins, look at our preschool initiative. I don’t know of another place, and I have lived in many cities across three states, that values education like we do here.”

Such is not to say the city’s colleges and universities do not face challenges. After enrollment spikes a few years ago, the number of incoming students has flattened out, in part because of the state’s lower high school graduation rates. Given the high representation of Arkansans in each respective student body, this has forced the institutions of higher learning to redouble recruitment and expand offerings to maintain numbers, with Central Baptist enrolling 881 in 2015.

“Our growth of a few years ago was the result of pretty aggressive recruiting and the expansion of programs,” Kimbrow said. “We expanded our bachelor’s level program from just a handful to almost 50. That helped. We also have 12 intercollegiate athletic teams now, where we had maybe six 12 years ago.”

“Over the last few years, we’ve had what I would call steady growth. Not huge, but growing very conservatively and very prudently,” Courtway said. “Last year, the year we increased admissions standards, we grew about .5 percent, the year before about 1 percent.

“As we move ahead, we have to look at our retention rates and try to keep more of our students in school progressing toward graduation. We’ve also really redoubled our efforts to attract transfer students coming from some of the nearby, two-year colleges.”

All three presidents pointed to the absolute necessity that college fit the demands of the modern labor market. Even Hendrix with its traditional taste-from-many-plates liberal arts philosophy, is increasingly stressing how to translate broad-based learning within the marketplace.

“Fifty years ago, the job trajectories were very clear; you needed A, B and C to get a job at X, Y or Z company,” Tsutsui said. “These days, most young people going into the job market are going to have to invent their own job. That’s why I think the liberal arts education is valuable, to have skills that are widely applicable.

“At the same time, I tell all students if you have a chance to take an accounting course it is going to be useful in whatever you do. If you can read a balance sheet — whether you are in a nonprofit organization or a Fortune 500 company — you are going to be powerful because of it.”

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