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Facing enrollment dip, UALR to tighten belt

Travel, training added to cutbacks list

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Photographs by John Sykes Jr.

FILE — Students are silhouetted by the morning sun as they walk past UALR's Ottenheimer Library in this 2017 file photo.

Facing expected enrollment declines, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has announced new budget cuts, suspending "nonessential" travel, training and conference attendance for university employees.

According to an email sent Wednesday to faculty and staff members from Chancellor Andrew Rogerson, unofficial enrollment numbers for the university currently are projected at 10,525, which is down by 1,099 from fall 2017 -- an overall drop of nearly 10 percent.

The announcement refers to previous measures taken to prepare for the accompanying loss in tuition and fees, including a hiring freeze (excepting "mission-critical positions") implemented in July, a directive to hold back 10 percent of departmental budgets and earmarking of university reserve dollars to "preserve academic quality."

However, "we need to do more," Rogerson wrote, saying the school is facing "challenging budget conditions."

In a phone interview, Amanda Nolen, a UALR education professor and the faculty senate president, called the cuts "disappointing."

"It makes our work a little more difficult. ... The travel freeze involving conferences and professional development is particularly challenging for faculty on the tenure track," she said, adding that they might have to pay for events out of their own pockets if they want to continue to advance.

It's also rough for junior faculty members, who might still be paying off student loans, she said.

A spokesman for the University of Arkansas system said he was aware of "precautionary and proactive" cost-cutting measures that recently took place at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, but he did not know of cuts similar to those announced at UALR at other campuses.

Nolen, who has taught at UALR for 14 years, expressed concern about what she said was an ongoing trend of falling enrollment at the school.

"I would like a little more information nailing down exactly what the causes are. ... Until we do have a clear understanding of what's happening, I'm wondering how we expect to turn this around," she said.

Rogerson wrote that there are several mitigating factors to this year's enrollment drop. The headcount is under review and will not become official until it is reported to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education on Oct. 17.

"As a metropolitan university that serves a large population of transfer and non-traditional students, [UALR] has historically experienced a decline in enrollment when the job market is strong," he wrote. "The economy is strong and has undoubtedly contributed to our current enrollment decline."

Rogerson also pointed to higher admissions standards, 685 fewer high school students taking classes for UALR credit and a rise in the university's six-year graduation rate, which increased from 19 percent to 31 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2011 -- the most recent year for which data are available -- as reasons for falling enrollment.

In his message, Rogerson wrote that student enrollment and retention would be "top priorities" at the campus in the coming year.

"Any time that your enrollment goes down, it's always a cause for concern," said Mark Allen Poisel, vice chancellor for student affairs. "It's certainly making us do a double-take and a look at our policies, procedures and practices."

To boost enrollment, Poisel says the school is looking at its recruitment strategies, such as building connections with high school sophomores and juniors and revamping the system it uses to communicate with prospective students.

The school also has taken steps to improve its student retention, such as re-doing its advising structure and examining scholarship programs, he said.

Judy Williams, associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing, said that in her 11 years at the university, she has seen similar enrollment swings, particularly when the job market is more favorable.

"[At UALR] You've got a lot of students who are part-time students, working, going to school. We've looked at the trends. When the economy is good ... those nontraditional students may stop out for a while and go full time into the workforce," she said.

According to data provided by UALR news director Tracy Courage, students at the school are almost evenly split between full-time and part-time attendees, with approximately 5,128 students attending part time and 5,354 attending full time.

Williams also said there are challenges to budgetary planning as it relates to enrollment, because budgets are made well before the academic year begins.

"It's kind of hard to know exactly how many students are going to enroll, and how many students are going to persist," she said.

Vice chancellor for finance and administration Steve McClellan said it's early to assess how much revenue would be lost related to this year's enrollment numbers, but he estimated it would be between $3.2-$3.5 million.

The university's overall budget is roughly $173 million, and about 45 percent of its revenue is made up of tuition and fees, according to a summary on its website.

McClellan said the university expects to save about $500,000 with the travel restrictions announced Wednesday, and that he would have a better picture of the overall financial impact of this year's enrollment next week.

"It's early and all these numbers are constantly changing," he said. "The university is there, the university is very healthy, but we'll have to adjust our expenditures to match these revenues."

Williams said the budget measures would likely be re-evaluated at the end of fiscal 2019, next June.

Some other universities in the state also are sharing in UALR's enrollment struggles. Also on Wednesday, the Jonesboro Sun reported an anticipated drop in enrollment at all five Arkansas State University campuses in 2018, which officials also attributed to a thriving economy.

Metro on 09/14/2018

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