The Terrific Two's: The old community college try 

Community colleges were slow starters in Arkansas. Now, as at Westark, they're booming

click to enlarge Arkansas's community colleges are off and running.
  • Arkansas's community colleges are off and running.

It's not a boast exactly, but it is delivered emphatically: "We're the worst-funded, fastest-growing institution in the state of Arkansas." So Dan Bakke, president of Pulaski Technical College, tells visitors to the Tech campus, a cluster of new buildings on a hill in North Little Rock.

Now 10 years old, Tech had 850 credit students in its first year of operation. Last year, it had 4,300. It expects 5,000 this fall (and as many more noncredit students in workforce training programs.) It is already the second-largest two-year college in Arkansas, and the seventh-largest institution of higher learning, four-year and two-year. The largest of the two-year schools, Westark College in Fort Smith, had 5,237 credit students last year, and expects an increase of around 10 percent.

Private interests are even talking about paying for a football team at Pulaski Tech. No Arkansas two-year college has a football team. In fact, state law forbade football at the two-year schools (because of its cost) until this year, when friends of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks persuaded the legislature to allow football at Tech if no public money was used. Razorback coaches and well-heeled fans would like a farm club for the Razorbacks. Two-year colleges commonly perform this function in surrounding states. Bakke is noncommittal so far. When and if there's a specific proposal, the administration and the Board of Trustees will consider it, he said.

Elsewhere, there's been considerable adverse reaction to the proposal, on the ground that other things deserve more attention. Lu Hardin, director of the state Department of Higher Education, points to the per-student expenditure at Tech — $2,696. That is, as Bakke said, the lowest of any of the state institutions of higher learning. "I'd like to see Pulaski Tech at the state average per student before athletics are addressed," Hardin said. "And I'm a Razorback fan." Tech's low per-student expenditure is partly a result of its having grown much faster than the state funding formula could be adjusted. "The first year we were open, we probably had one of the highest per-student expenditures," Bakke said.

And, unlike many of the two-year colleges, Tech has no local tax base. The two-year colleges that were established 

as two-year colleges were required by law to provide some sort of local tax support. Pulaski Tech was originally a state vocational-technical school, transformed overnight into a college by a 1991 law that put Arkansas into the two-year college business in a big way.

So Tech gets all its money from the state and from student tuition. Every building on campus was bonded, with tuition pledged to pay off the bonds. "Our students pay 43 percent of our budget," Bakke said. "Twenty-three percent is about average for institutions of higher learning." Tech not only lacks football, it lacks extracurricular activities of any kind — a drama club, a choir, even a place for students to drink coffee and talk. "That's something we're lacking in," Bakke said. "We've been too busy meeting the demands for classroom space." He's planning now for a $17 million student center with a cafeteria. It will require the biggest fund-raising effort Tech has ever mounted.

 There are big doings as well at Westark College, 160 miles west of Pulaski Tech. An independent institution for many years, and something of a model for the other two-year colleges, Westark is preparing to merge with the University of Arkansas System. Both the Westark and U of A Boards of Trustees have approved the merger, and Fort Smith voters have approved a change in local taxation — repealing a property tax, levying a sales tax — that was needed to effect the merger. On January 1, 2002, Westark will become the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Westark and U of A officials envision that, over a period of years, UAFS will add baccalaureate programs and become a full-fledged four-year institution, while retaining the technical mission that is part of a two-year college's job — that is, training workers for local industries. Thanks to a bill Westark slipped through the legislature in 1997, over the objections of the Department of Higher Education, the college already has authority to grant a few baccalaureates — the only two-year college with such authority — and is actually granting one, in manufacturing technology.


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