The state's colleges and universities reported a modest increase in total enrollment from the fall of 2021 to the fall of 2022, but it marked the first such increase in Arkansas in a decade.
This is "very exciting news, and I'm very excited to report it," Sonia Hazelwood, assistant director and chief data officer for the Arkansas Division of Higher Education, told the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board, which met at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College on Friday. "It's kind of unexpected to be up, but we'll take it."
The total unduplicated head count for the fall 2022 term in all sectors of Arkansas higher education, including universities, public colleges, private/independent colleges and universities, and nursing schools, was 147,740 students, an increase of 1.4% from the fall 2021 term.
Fall enrollment has been falling annually since 2012, according to Hazelwood. Even with the increase, Arkansas higher education currently has 24,272 fewer students than it did in the fall 2012 term.
The small rise from fall 2021 to fall 2022 was driven by increased enrollment year to year at public four- and two-year institutions, according to Hazelwood. Both private and nursing schools lost students from fall 2021 to fall 2022.
The increase for four-year public universities was the first in six years, with 92,722 students enrolled, up from 90,916 in 2021, she said. The two-year public colleges were up 1.2% from 2021, at 40,010, compared with 39,542 the prior year.
Statewide undergraduate head count actually declined from fall 2021 by nearly 400 students, but that was more than offset by the increase in graduate enrollment, she said. Statewide graduate head count for all public and private institutions increased by 837 students, a rise of nearly 5% from 2021.
First-professional head count -- which includes students in law, medicine, pharmacy, advanced nursing programs, and occupational and physical therapies -- continued to grow, as it has annually for the past decade, she said. The head count reached a new high in the fall of 2022, with 3,762 students.
The state's two-year and four-year institutions have both increased retention rates year over year and over the past decade, said Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education. Graduation rates have also climbed for two-year and four-year institutions over the past decade.
However, the state still needs to do better in helping traditionally underserved students -- first-generation students, minority students, and students from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds -- succeed in college, Markham said. "We have not done a good job, but that's something we're going to look at even more closely moving forward."
Among the state's public four-year institutions, Southern Arkansas University reported the highest percentage increase in enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022, up 15%, from 4,434 to 5,094, while the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville was up 6.4%, from 29,068 to 30,936. Those with the largest drops in enrollment by percentage were Henderson State University, falling nearly 14%, from 2,919 to 2,519, and the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, 2,670 to 2,387, a 10.5% drop.
At UA-Fayetteville, Mark Rushing, associate vice chancellor of university relations, said in the fall: "We're growing and thriving. Our core mission is to provide education and opportunities for Arkansans, but we've become a destination school, too, very popular with students from surrounding states."
SAU President Trey Berry has said his university's growth was a group effort.
"We feel so completely fortunate to reach this historic level in our enrollment," Berry said in a university news release in the fall. "So many people in our SAU community worked tirelessly and built strong relationships with our student body and their families to make this milestone happen."
Henderson State has undergone "radical changes in curriculum and staffing" -- Henderson State eliminated 25 degree programs and 88 faculty positions as part of budget cuts following three years of financial instability -- so the decrease in returning students wasn't unexpected, Arkansas State University System President Chuck Welch has said. However, HSU did report increases in first-time and graduate students, which is "remarkable."
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff thinks several factors played a part to the enrollment decline, including some out of the university's control.
"There is no singular reason for the decrease, [but] it appears that the pandemic and economic conditions are affecting our enrollment," said Mary Hester-Clifton, director of communications, institutional advancement at UA-Pine Bluff, in the fall.
For public two-year schools, ASU-Three Rivers reported the largest increase, of nearly 15%, going from 1,597 to 1,832, while Black River Technical College reported 13.5% growth, and East Arkansas Community College increased fall term head count by nearly 12%. The only public two-year school to post a double-digit percentage decline was ASU-Newport, at 12%, falling from 1,829 students to 1,610.
ASU-Three Rivers reported a roughly 75% increase in its freshmen class, some of whom may have been lured at least in part by scholarships, as the university awarded several to students in technical programs as part of a $200,000 anonymous donation the university received last year that had to be spent by Jan. 1, 2023, Chancellor Steve Rook said in the fall. "Dipping our toe" into athletics will also "have a positive enrollment impact" in the future, as the school will field baseball and softball teams beginning this year.
Though enrollment at ASU-Newport fell overall, multiple programs saw growth, including "several technical programs," Chancellor Johnny Moore said in the fall.
While the total unduplicated head count for the fall 2022 term in all sectors of Arkansas higher education was up 1.4% from the fall 2021 term, the total unduplicated head count for the 2022 academic year -- this measure "looks at all students enrolled between July 1 and June 30 of each academic year" -- was 173,366 students, a decrease of 0.9% from the 2021 academic year, Hazelwood said.
The last time all sectors of Arkansas higher education experienced an increase in annual head count was the 2012 academic year, when the total unduplicated head count was 210,017, the largest annual head count ever.
Under this metric, four-year universities, two-year colleges, and nursing schools all experienced an overall decrease in head count year to year, while private/independent institutions reported an increase.
The leading gainers, according to the state Higher Education division, were the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, up 6.2% year to year; UA-Fayetteville, up 5.1%; and SAU, up 4.9%. Arkansas Tech University saw the biggest loss by percentage year to year, at nearly 11%. Henderson State was down 8%, and both the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and University of Arkansas at Little Rock were down about 5%.
Among two-year institutions, ASU-Three Rivers was up nearly 20% year to year, while East Arkansas Community College grew nearly 13%. On the other end of the spectrum, the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville fell more than 10%, the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana dropped 9.5%, and ASU Mid-South was down 9.4%.
Of the 32,167 students who graduated from Arkansas public high schools in 2021, 13,536 enrolled at an Arkansas public or private/independent institution in the fall of 2021 immediately following their high school graduation, a College-Going Rate of 42.1%, which is a 2.1% decrease from the previous year, according to Hazelwood.
"This decline reflects the impact the covid-19 pandemic had on students entering higher education immediately following their high school graduation," she said.
Nationally, nearly 1.3 million students disappeared from American colleges during the coronavirus pandemic, and attendance among undergraduates fell nearly 10%.
Roughly one out of every four people in Arkansas age 25 or older has at least a bachelor's degree, which places Arkansas among the bottom five states in that category, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the percentage of people age 25 and older who had completed a bachelor's degree or higher is about 38%.
Enrollment and student credit hours are crucial to colleges and universities partly because of the revenue they bring in from tuition and mandatory fees, as well as from on-campus food services and housing. Also, a well-educated workforce helps state officials attract high-paying industry to locate in Arkansas.
The College-Going Rate that Hazelwood presented Friday does come with a couple of caveats, she said. First, it includes only students from the state's public high schools, not private high schools, and, secondly, it includes only students enrolling in Arkansas colleges and universities, not those who opt for out-of-state college, so "we are missing a lot."
Nick Fuller, assistant director of finance at the state Higher Education division, presented the annual financial condition for all of the state's public colleges and universities during Friday's meeting of the Coordinating Board.
He made three recommendations:
• Continue to work with institutions to monitor and refine the Productivity Funding Model -- a mechanism to align institutional funding with statewide priorities for higher education by incentivizing progress toward statewide goals in the areas of efficiency, effectiveness, affordability, and adjustments -- policies to ensure adequate funding is available to meet student needs, innovation is encouraged, and that the policies continue to respond to attainment goals and priorities of the state.
• The Coordinating Board, Higher Education division and institutions of higher education work with the state Legislature toward alignment of institutional funding policies, state financial aid policies, and tuition policies in a way that prioritizes higher education affordability.
• Establish a Revolving Loan Fund dedicated to deferred maintenance needs for public institutions.
More than half of university facilities in the state are more than 30 years old, a mark when most of the life expectancy of the building systems has elapsed, and the state's higher education institutions have more than $3 billion in deferred maintenance, with $265 million of that deemed "critical," Fuller said.
Students come to a university expecting to receive instruction on the latest technology available but are finding labs with outdated equipment and technology, and if universities are to produce graduates in the sciences and engineering programs who can compete in the current and future economy, facilities must be renovated, updated or replaced, he said.
While not among his recommendations, Fuller also noted salaries for faculty in Arkansas are relatively low. The state ranks last for faculty salaries at four-year institutions, and second-to-last for faculty at two-year schools, among the 16 states in the Southern Regional Education Board.