- CAMPUS CAUTION: Hendrix College, a private school in Conway, says applications are holding steady, despite tough economic times. But it's also increasing scholarship spending to buttress the rest of the equation - the number who enroll.
It's been a tough year for higher education. Across the nation, universities are dealing with declining endowments and significant cuts in state appropriations. Some universities have been forced to cut degree programs, lay off employees or place caps on enrollment.
Arkansas public higher education also was hit by budget cuts. Gov. Mike Beebe says some of that money could be restored if the economy allows, but prospects of a worsening revenue forecast might make that wishful thinking.
All of this produces caution and belt-tightening at Arkansas colleges public and private.
Officials at NorthWest Arkansas Community College at Bentonville are waiting to see how much of their $400,000 cut will be restored before setting tuition rates for next year. Henderson State University at Arkadelphia has cut scholarships, capital expenditures and some unfilled personnel positions. Ouachita Baptist University, a private school at Arkadelphia, recently announced a 12 percent cut in administrative and staff positions.
State institutions could benefit from another national trend, however. Smaller, public universities are looking more attractive to parents and prospective students than more expensive out-of-state or private schools.
Many public universities nationwide have reported an increase in applications. In Arkansas, the state's biggest institutions — University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas — say applications are comparable to or slightly above last year's figures.
Markham Howe, a spokesman for ASU, says it's too early to tell exactly how many students will accept or enroll next fall, but the economy is having an effect on families' decisions.
“Generally a student's choice of a college hinges on three things: the location, the scholarship money available and the majors they can pursue,” Howe says. “If you have colleges that can't handle their normal level of scholarship spending because of their state funding or whatever, then those students are going to start looking someplace else. So there might be students who were going to go out of state, but they may now say I'll stay close to home.”
UA spokesman Steve Voorhies says the trend of students staying in-state, could make UA more competitive academically.
“There is a finite amount of money available for academic scholarships,” Voorhies says. “So those spots are going to be more competitive. We may find ourselves in the position of telling someone with a high B average, ‘I'm sorry.' Students who may have qualified for a scholarship last year may not this year.”
Voorhies says it won't be harder to get in, it will just be a little harder to get a scholarship. That's also the case at UCA, buffeted financially by its own recent overspending, not just the general economy. The school will spend less money on scholarships than it has in the past three or four years. However, applications are up despite publicity about the school's now-infamous financial woes. Joe Darling, the vice president for enrollment services at UCA, says the school's location and academic reputation have outweighed negative publicity.
In the face of budget shortfalls, increasing enrollment can help, but neither ASU, UA nor UCA intends to lower admission standards or make concerted efforts to increase enrollment.
Of course the real question is not the number of applications but the percentage of those accepted students who enroll. It's too early to say.
“It's very tricky, because you don't want to admit too many, but you don't want to admit too few,” Voorhies says.
If enrollment is too high, student services might suffer: class sizes might expand or lines at the cafeteria or the library might grow. Lower-than-expected enrollment can exacerbate budget problems.
Take Henderson State. After learning of a reduction in state appropriations of more than $500,000, school officials ramped up the 2009 budget to include revenue from an additional 100 students. Those students never came. Even with cuts in capital expenditures and scholarships, the school will be almost $900,000 in the red. Officials have said there will be no cuts in salary or current personnel.
Other schools are worried too many students will enroll. Arizona State University has capped enrollment, cut four dozen academic programs and laid off workers.
Howe, of Arkansas State, says that probably won't happen in this state.
“I think all of us would like to have more students, just as a general rule,” Howe says. “I don't think you're going to see any school in Arkansas put limits on enrollment.”
As for private schools, some are doing better than others. While Hendrix College in Conway has seen a 25 percent decrease in the value of its endowment fund — on par with the national average — applications are on track with last year. The college has also added $3 million to its 2009-10 budget for scholarships. Harding University in Searcy has only seen a 9 percent drop in its endowment, but school officials recently announced that no new positions will be added and tuition will go up 3 percent next year.
Public universities are trying to keep prices down as much as possible. UA has said it will try to go without a tuition increase for the first time in 24 years, though it has conditioned that on hopes of increased state aid. Howe says ASU is trying to do the same.
When asked what steps they were taking to help families who were facing tough choices, some officials seemed flummoxed. With scholarship funds at a premium it's hard to make any promises to prospective students. Howe says ASU tries to give students affordable options when it comes to housing, meal plans and public transportation.
“We try to be good business and money managers,” Howe says. “We can't give away our product, but one of the things that we are doing is talking to students and their families about money and what it's going to cost.”