Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
The bruising price of a college education, the problems faced by students forced to take out loans they can't repay, are much deplored by media and politicians these days. And at this moment, UALR adopts a new policy that will cost some entering freshmen $7,400 a year more than they would have paid otherwise. What's wrong with this picture?
Nothing, according to UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, but others on campus are concerned. The most outspoken of these is Nickolas Jovanovic, an engineering professor and member of the UALR Faculty Senate. (Which has no authority to change the policy adopted by the administration.)
Beginning next fall, UALR will require entering fulltime freshmen to live in on-campus housing and take their meals on campus. The cost of one year of residence in a UALR dorm is $4,950; the most popular meal plan (two a day) costs $2,420.
Chancellor Anderson notes that UALR and the other state institutions of higher learning have been asked by Governor Beebe to double their number of graduates by 2025. Arkansas ranks near the bottom of all states in percentage of college graduates.
Nationwide research has shown, Anderson says, that students who live on campus make better grades, are more likely to stay in school, graduate in higher numbers, and report more satisfaction with the college experience than students who live off campus. And when more students live on campus, "the campus community as a whole is enriched through more student engagement that leads to a richer academic experience," according to a statement on the new policy from the administration.
Jovanovic says that a lot of faculty members are opposed to the new policy, primarily because it has no exemption for students who live at home with their parents. He points out that the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Central Arkansas at Conway also have on-campus living requirements for freshmen, but both those institutions exempt freshmen who are living at home with relatives.
"There's a big difference between living with your buddies and living with your parents," Jovanovic says. "I don't know that the research they quote took that into consideration. I think the main factor is that students who live on campus are better off financially than those who live off campus. Better-off students do better, they have a higher retention rate and a higher graduation rate."
Jovanovic fears that UALR will lose a marketing advantage because of the new policy. It's cheaper for Little Rock students to attend UALR because they can live at home, he says, and "If they can't live at home, they might as well go to Fayetteville." Because of their location, the most likely beneficiaries if UALR loses enrollment would be UCA and Pulaski Tech, in North Little Rock. A two-year institution, Pulaski Tech has no on-campus housing.
"I'm afraid students will choose to go elsewhere," Jovanovic says. "We've already shut down the German studies program here. If we lose more students, other programs will be shut down."
Anderson doesn't believe the new policy will hurt UALR's enrollment. Many forms of financial assistance are available to students, he says, and some people who initially think they can't afford UALR find that they can, after talking with UALR officials. Finally, he says that if there's someone who can't attend UALR solely because of the new on-campus living requirement, "We won't turn them away."
The policy makes exceptions for "students who are 21 and older, who are veterans, who are in programs not on the main campus, who are married, who are parents, or who have other mitigating circumstances." Because it has always been mostly a commuter school in the state's largest metropolitan area, UALR has always had a high number of nontraditional students, people who are older, and working. Of an enrollment of 13,000, only about 1,000 will be affected by the new policy. (Jovanovic says his family would have been affected if the policy had been adopted earlier. He's a parent who lives two blocks from the UALR campus.)
What is now called UALR was for many years a private institution, without dormitories. In 1969, the legislature approved the merger of Little Rock University into the University of Arkansas system. At the time, there was a widespread belief, if no formal agreement, that the new UALR also would be a commuter school only. There was also a gentleman's agreement that UALR would never field a football team, this intended to prevent competition with the Razorback program at Fayetteville. There's still no football at UALR, but the university overcame some objections and succeeded in opening its first residence hall in 1992. New dorms were added in 2006 and 2011. About 1,000 students now live in the residence halls. In May 2012, UALR bought the nearby Coleman Place Apartments. It is renovating the former apartment complex and calling it University Village. When the Village opens up to students, UALR will have space for 1,400 on-campus residents. Rumors have circulated that UALR is having problems filling the new on-campus housing, and that this prompted adoption of the new housing policy. Anderson says this is untrue. UALR has been studying the new policy for a year and a half, he says.
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