On-campus housing is a touchy issue at UALR. When Chancellor Joel Anderson was asked about the university's plan to build a second residence hall, he produced numbers to show that UALR, a commuter college, still would be housing only a tiny percentage of its students.
Last year, UALR housed about 350 students of a total enrollment of 11,750. That's 3 percent. The existing residence hall (dormitory, they used to be called) opened in 1992. A second would double the number of students living on campus. Even if UALR's enrollment didn't increase - and it will - that would still be only 6 percent.
Anderson compared that figure with the percentages for on-campus housing at other urban commuter colleges comparable to UALR:
University of Memphis, 28 percent; University of Missouri at St. Louis, 7 percent; Georgia State University at Atlanta, 9 percent; University of Louisville, 17 percent; University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, 13 percent; University of New Orleans, 10 percent; University of Missouri at Kansas City, 10 percent.
Anderson's comparisons were prompted by a show of interest in UALR's housing plans that was possibly more than UALR anticipated or wanted. The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees gave preliminary approval to the plan for the second residence hall last month - UALR is scheduled to submit more details later this month - but when Anderson mentioned that sometime in the future, UALR might want to add still more beds, a few hundred or so, a trustee from Fayetteville asked if he was planning to "change the nature" of UALR.
Later, the Arkansas Times posed a similar question. The answer is no, Anderson said: "As far into the future as we can see, the overwhelming majority of our students will be driving in or riding the bus, as they do now."
But, he said, there is a demand for more housing at UALR - 700 more beds than UALR now has, according to a study done by a private consultant. That means UALR is attracting more young, fulltime students right out of high school, the "traditional" college students, than before. Like other urban universities, UALR has always been supported heavily by non-traditional students, older and part-time scholars who leave the campus for homes or jobs when their class schedule ends.
Many of the traditional students are coming because of UALR's new, high-tech Cyber College, Anderson said. "We have a number of academic programs in the Cyber College that are unique in the state - systems engineering, information science, construction management." The college has students from 68 of the 75 Arkansas counties, he said.
"Housing is an issue with students, and if not with them, with their parents," Anderson said. "A parent feels more comfortable if that first year, at least, the student is in university housing."
University housing has other benefits, Anderson said. "Having more students on campus strengthens the university community and enriches campus life. Intramural sports programs, for example. More students can participate if they're not driving to Sherwood or Benton."
Some people believe that when the legislature merged a private institution, Little Rock University, into the University of Arkansas system in 1969, promises were made that UALR would never have dorms, in an effort to quiet opposition from Fayetteville. (Although U of A officials supported the merger, many Northwest Arkansas residents did not.) But if there was such an agreement it was informal and non-binding, apparently. Anderson, who came to UALR shortly after the merger, said he'd never seen any documentation of such an agreement. Cal Ledbetter of Little Rock, who was both a member of the legislature and an LRU professor at the time, recalls no such promises.
Though UALR is experiencing increased demand for housing, the trend for years has been for fewer students to live on campus, as even the "traditional" universities enroll more non-traditional students, even traditional students show a preference for off-campus living, and all students have become more mobile. Nationally, public universities house about one-third of their students, on average. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville houses about 4,300 students in an enrollment of 16,500 (26 percent). The University of Central Arkansas at Conway houses a higher percentage of students than any other Arkansas university - 3,500 students in an enrollment of 10,000.