By John Barnes
This week is an important milestone for Pulaski Technical College. The school’s Board of Trustees and the Administration want to merge PTC with the University of Arkansas. As for Pulaski County residents, this merger may seem the natural thing to do, but no one has really asked how did come to this.
In 2005, PTC had an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students, but this year enrollment has dropped to 7500 students. Why? What caused a 20-year growth cycle to suddenly end? Most of the research given to the 1991 General Assembly indicated PTC could sustain an enrollment of 12,000 even with all of the other established colleges in the market area. At worse, the growth cycle should have leveled off, but it did not. Instead enrollment plummeted.
It would be easy to say the decline was because the legislature failed to provide adequate funding. That is a good start. Even former U.S. Sen. David Pryor said as much recently when as a UofA trustee said he could not support a $160 million bond issue to support expansion of Razorback Stadium. That in itself is enough to cause a pause in this PTC merger question.
Other reason for the decline can be the lack of community support for PTC as evidenced by the disastrous attempt several years ago when PTC asked Pulaski County residents to support a local millage to help raise more revenue. The PTC Trustees and the administration failed to organize a campaign effort to turnout support. Anyone familiar with Pulaski County elections know that there is a hardcore of about 3,000 voters who will always turnout and vote against any ballot proposal to raise a tax regardless of how meaningful the need is.
PTC community partners such as Baptist Hospital, Caterpillar, Dassault Falcon, Maybelline Loreal, and other recipients of PTC graduates were not asked to join the quest to get voters out who would have favored the millage.
This lack of community support happened in spite of the fact that over 20,000 citizens during the first 20 years of the school's existence graduated with either an associate degree or a technical training certificate.
Also, the present Board and administration forgot why PTC was created in the first place.
In 1991, the 78th General Assembly passed Act 1244 of 1991 which created: “the Arkansas technical and community college system . . . to provide an improved delivery system of adult education and for other purposes . . .offering courses of instruction in technical, vocational and adult education programs, industry training and two-year college transfer programs. The system established under this act shall provide educational programs easily accessible by all segments of the population to benefit from training, retraining or upgrade training for employment and which is highly responsive to individuals needing basic, general and specialized education to meet the needs of the workplace.”
While Act 1244 did not provide student enrollment standards, the newly created technical/community colleges had open enrollment which means a student who did not meet the minimum admission standard of the state’s 4-years schools could start at PTC and work on becoming educationally competent to transfer to a 4-year institution to attain a bachelor's degree.
“Open enrollment” is commonly identified as a purpose for a technical/community college. Here’s the definition of a community college as stated by the American Association of Community Colleges:
1,167 community colleges in the United States enroll more than 12.4 million students and serve almost half of all undergraduate students in the United States. All have nationally-recognized accreditation. These community colleges offer a wide variety of options to postsecondary students:In the beginning, PTC had open enrollment and did during my 20-year tenure as a trustee. Open enrollment ended at PTC as the legislature started passing laws tying state funding for higher education to a school’s degree completion rates. At PTC, and other 2-year institutions the door was slammed shut on those Arkansans who needed educational help the most.
• Open access to postsecondary education
• Preparation for transfer to four-year college or university
• Workforce development and skills training
• A range of noncredit programs, such as English as a second language, skills retraining, community enrichment programs and cultural activities
Community colleges offer a distinct learning environment, and are recognized for smaller class sizes, more individualized attention and a supportive atmosphere.
The K-12 school system hasn’t helped. Nearly 70% of Arkansas graduates require at least one course of remediation before being ready to do college work. Even more appalling, about 40% of those graduates require remediation in two courses. That cost PTC millions of dollars each year to get these students ready for college work. The state legislature has never considered requiring the offending school district to reimburse the state colleges for having to remediate the school district graduate.
Regarding creating a distinct learning environment, the original Board of Trustees passed a policy stating that no general education classroom would be sized to hold more than 30 students. The classes were taught by master-degreed instructors. Compare taking English 101 at PTC versus an English 101 class taught at the U o fA which is usually taught in a large auditorium type space with a teaching assistant (no master's degree).
In the beginning when the original Board and it successors were faced with a problem such as the open enrollment dilemma, the board with the help of administrators and instructors would get creative and come up with the solution that continued PTC’s mission. There is always a positive solution to any problem if open thinking is employed. This requires forward-thinking leadership not evident in the current administration solution to the legislative mandate.
The original Board and successors were always concerned with easy access as required by Act 1244. The PTC building on Kanis near Baptist Medical Center was acquired to provide easy access to high school students and those adults seeking additional education. Two years after opening, the building was serving 2,000 students. Recently, the building closed because it had fallen into disrepair and a new roof was needed at a cost PTC could not afford. Where did the 2,000 students go? Evidently, not PTC because overall enrollment has fallen.
Both PTC and U of A have noble mission statements. But they do not necessarily align. The PTC Trustees and administration have stated that operating agreement would have to be acceptable to both parties before an effective merger. All one has to do is look at how UALR has been treated by U of A trustees since UALR became a part of the university system. Ask a member of UALR’s Board of Visitors how much attention U of A Trustees pay to the Board of Visitors’ recommendations.
If one looks at U of A organization chart, there is no department dedicated to Technical Education. PTC has had much success in technical education. At PTC, the culinary school, the FAA-certified aircraft (avionics) maintenance and air frame maintenance, diesel repair, and the cosmetology school in Bryant are just a few examples of skill success training.
Until the recession of 2008, nearly all of the cabinet makers hired by Dassault-Falcon were trained at PTC. Caterpillar set up an assembly line at the PTC Business and Industry building to train its initial workforce. Until four years ago when the head of the diesel department died, every diesel repair shop in the state had workers certified at PTC. Even the head of J.B. Hunt maintenance was a PTC graduate. The approximate starting salary after one-year of training was about $40,000 annually.
There are graduates of the PTC Culinary School making $80,000 a year.
Do you think the U of A administration or trustees have any idea how to run such programs? U of A is a land-grant college established to train doctors, lawyers, physicians, teachers, CPAs, etc. Those professionals in the work world are supported by professionals from technical colleges.
There is a reason Arkansas is 49th in everything and “Thank God for Mississippi” lingers in an Arkansan’s lexicon. Arkansas leaders can’t connect that better education for Arkansans at all levels leads to a better overall environment statewide. Jobs of the 21st Century require better workforce training. The amount of money this state spends on prisons and jails is testimony to our education failures. The same can be said for the number of Arkansans on welfare rolls. More Arkansans who attain higher education or specialized skill training means more taxpayers and fewer tax consumers.
Even Governor Asa Hutchinson can’t make the connection. In a recent announcement of a coalition for workforce development, there was no mention of 2-year schools being involved. The 78th General Assembly and then-Gov. Bill Clinton 24 years ago had a better forward thinking education vision than the current General Assembly and Gov. Hutchinson. Poor leadership has a way of trickling down an organization and state government is not excluded.