“College” as we know it isn’t going anywhere. Like their counterparts across the United States, Arkansas colleges and universities adapted and survived to see the light of day — a planned return of something like pre-pandemic normal this fall — at the end of the 2020 tunnel.
The bands will march, and classrooms will be occupied once more this fall, but will the traditional college model return unscathed? In Arkansas, higher education leaders believe it will — with some tweaks. For one, online classes are expected to become a more common component to the on-campus experience, as hybrid class schedules remain an option. And as Arkansans continue to shake off the 2020 economic doldrums related to COVID-19, students are expected to seek more efficient degree paths and more tightly tailor their schedules to meet specific needs.
So, students are returning to campus this fall. But how much will the pandemic year have altered their consumer behavior? Dr. Robin Bowen, president of Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, told Arkansas Money & Politics that institutions of higher learning will need to keep adapting for their consumers.
“Higher education was already evolving before the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated that evolution and made it necessary for universities across the nation to become nimble,” Bowen said. “Data reveals two truths: There will be fewer traditional college-age students in the years to come, and many of those seeking higher education will look for flexible options that allow them to stack credentials while simultaneously advancing their careers. I believe there will always be a place for the traditional, four-year undergraduate education and experience.
“However, the demographics of the coming years require Arkansas Tech University and like-minded institutions to prepare themselves to provide an increasingly diverse group of prospective students with an increasingly diverse range of educational options.”
Tech is positioned to serve a wide range of students, Bowen said. It offers the full range of degree options, from technical certificates and associate degrees at its satellite campus in Ozark to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the main campus in Russellville.
“I believe that higher education will be more adaptable in the years to come as a result of COVID-19,” Bowen said. “At Arkansas Tech, we’ve enhanced our capacity and our confidence as it relates to the delivery of content online. It will be interesting to watch the trends in coming years. How many students now prefer online learning after experiencing it during the pandemic? How can we serve those students while simultaneously providing for the needs of in-person learners? These will be important questions, and the students will provide the answers. Our responsibility is to be responsive to their educational needs.”
Of course, colleges would love to inherit more needs to meet this fall. School officials are optimistic for increased on-campus enrollment after 2020 fall headcounts fell by 4.2 percent from 2019, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. At the state’s 22 public two-year colleges, enrollment fell by 9.9 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
The drop in enrollment at four-year schools was less than expected, but officials want to make sure it doesn’t become a trend. Projected losses related to the pandemic for the state’s 12 four-year colleges and universities were estimated at $23 million.
In the spring semester of 2020, the Arkansas State University System closed its campuses including the main campus in Jonesboro, and instead only offered online instruction. Of the 3,000 living on campus, 900 who were either international students or had nowhere else to go were all that remained.
Students who moved out were refunded room and board costs, creating what Kelly Damphousse, chancellor of the main Jonesboro campus, called a significant financial loss.
Enrollment for this year also declined as a result of COVID-19, he said. More than 250 freshmen, who Damphousse counted on to enroll this fall, are not coming. At first, he thought they may have opted to go to other universities. Instead, he discovered, they simply were not going to any school because of the pandemic.
“That affects us,” he said. “Today’s freshmen are next year’s sophomores and the following year’s juniors. You live with that class [coming through] a long time. “
He said revenue from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and other federal aid has helped ASU recoup most of its losses, and the university didn’t have to dip into its reserve funds.
Some schools are expecting big bumps in freshman enrollment this fall, as students anticipate a return to the traditional, on-campus experience. The University of Arkansas forecasts a school record 5,800 on-campus freshmen this fall, including 200 students who deferred a year so they could attend class in-person.
UA spokesperson John Thomas said university officials believe the traditional model is as strong as ever.
“If there’s one thing this past year has shown us, it’s that students and faculty alike want to be back on campus in a face-to-face environment,” he said. “Face-to-face classes are an important part of the energy and atmosphere of campus, as well as the uniqueness of both the college experience and the University of Arkansas experience.”
University of Central Arkansas President Dr. Houston Davis is expecting a robust incoming freshman class that should outpace pre-COVID numbers. UCA’s 2020 enrollment fell by a modest 3.9 percent, above budget projections.
“As of today, we are encouraged that freshman applications and admittance numbers are running 12 percent higher than last year’s class at this time and are projected to be slightly higher than our entering freshman class in fall of 2019,” he said. “We also see a big increase in first-time graduate students, so that portion of enrollment will likely see a boost come fall. While we will not know official enrollment numbers until early September, all signs point to UCA’s overall enrollment being at healthy levels as we reclaim normal beyond the pandemic.”
Financially, UCA was able to smoothly navigate the COVID storm, thanks to its $15 million resource optimization initiative (ROI) launched four years ago, Davis said. The university’s budgeted educational and general (E&G) reserves — those funds allocated from the state legislature and received through tuition fees — increased from 1.8 percent of the overall E&G budget in fiscal year 2020 to 3.5 percent for FY22 — well above the “best practice standard in higher education of 3 percent,” he noted.
“And despite having to refund $2.5 million in auxiliary revenues related to COVID housing closures in spring of 2020, the budgeted auxiliary reserves have been built from 3.9 percent of auxiliaries in FY20 to 7 percent in FY22,” Davis said. “Building upon reserves has allowed us to begin a sequence of planned pay improvements that includes a cost-of-living adjustment for all UCA employees of 2 percent as of July 1, 2021, and more funds placed into our market and equity pool to address pay disparities throughout the year.”
After the mid-semester pivot in the spring of 2020, schools were able to plan for an unconventional 2020-21 school year. Harding University in Searcy, for example, affiliated with the Church of Christ and the state’s largest private college, finished the 2020-21 academic year in the black, a spokesperson said. Officials agree that schools will be better equipped in the future to adapt to drastic market changes. For some, the disruption represented a potential silver lining.
At UCA, Davis insisted that “momentum was maintained” and progress made with its ROI allocations and investments. The pandemic pause forced school officials to buckle down and “make decisions with clear thinking and a long-term view.” The UCA operating position is stronger than it was in 2017, he said. And despite the growth of online learning exacerbated by the pandemic, Davis doesn’t think the on-campus model lost any of its value.
“I think that the pandemic showed that our students longed for the face-to-face operations and relationships that are formed on campus,” he said. “As we worked toward a close to normal operation last spring, the energy of campus really picked up and got us excited about the fall of this year.”
As the UA prepares to mark 150 years this fall and launch a search for a new chancellor, tuition and fees at the Fayetteville flagship campus will go up slightly after being frozen for the 2020-21 school year. And masks will still be required, for now, inside student health centers. Otherwise, Thomas said, the campus should look very much like it did pre-pandemic with the understanding that the school could return to a remote environment again if necessary.
“Our entire campus community was remarkable in staying flexible and showing the ability to pivot when it was needed to keep our academic mission moving forward,” he said. “However, we knew the shift would not be without its challenges. Faculty had the unprecedented task of shifting the format of their classes mid-semester to remote and hybrid delivery. The university made significant investments into technology that allowed streaming from classrooms for a full remote learning experience. Our students had to adapt, as well, and it wasn’t easy for them as they shifted to remote learning and missed out on the campus experience.
“If anything, the last year has shown us how important the traditional model is, but it has also shown us that we have to be flexible.”