Higher education key to our future

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The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College both sustained a substantial drop in student enrollment between the fall 2011 and fall 2012 semesters.
UAPB student enrollment fell 11.3 percent to 2,828, while SEARK’s enrollment dropped 15.4 percent to 1,841, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. It is unlikely those loses in enrollment occurred by chance and indicate a systematic cause. Or, in this case, causes.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello saw a slight increase during the same period, the ADHE report noted. UAM’s overall student enrollment rose six tenths of one percent to 3,945 while the participation of high school students taking college level courses soared 29.1 percent.
It would be easy to point a finger at the faculties and administrators of SEARK and UAPB. However, it would be an undeserved shot.
We can blame part of the enrollment downturn on the economy and tighter restrictions on financial aid programs. The loss of many part-time students may be attributed to eligibility changes for Pell Grants, designed to help students who come from low-income families attend college. Congress in late 2011 reduced the eligibility to use Pell Grants from 18 to 12 semesters.
The lower number of students graduating from area high school played a role. The Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel, and Dollarway school districts are all down in their enrollment.
Blame the latter, in part, to outward migration in the Arkansas Delta. When you couple that with the slightly tougher scores required to get into college, you can expect to see lower numbers.
Educators at the colleges and universities saw it coming in the late spring. They were receiving fewer applications than usual for the fall semester.
They realized that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.
Helping high schools teach remedial coursework will help the students finish their remedial work prior to attending college. That means implementing pre-freshman level courses for concurrent high school and college credit.
Keeping costs low has become a critical issue, along with recruiting, or making potential students more aware of what the institutions have to offer.
Interim Chancellor Calvin Johnson during his Chancellor’s Fall Convocation address Tuesday observed that UAPB must pay greater attention to customer service to remain one of the top historically black universities in the nation.
Johnson noted that in order to be successful an institution of higher learning must be accountable both to its governing bodies and accrediting agencies and to the students it serves.
The Arkansas General Assembly has tied higher education funding to performance benchmarks that must be reached. Student retention, rates of degree completion, student remediation rates and serving underserved groups and other assessment tools will all come into play.
“We must meet the evolving and changing needs of our students,” Johnson observed. “We are in the midst of a re-imagining of this institution that is centered on our customers. Our customers are our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni and our friends in the community.”
“Don’t follow the leader,” a commencement speaker told several hundred recent graduates in Southeast Arkansas. “Be the leader. That’s what we need for a good future. A lot of people talk about problems, but don’t just be a talker. Be a doer. Don’t just talk about a problem. Do something about it. Make things happen.”
UAPB, SEARK and UAM must set the pace for other institutions of higher learning by meeting the challenge of great customer service and making things happen. That’s our hope and future.