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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.

But the state Higher Education Coordinating Board will have to approve any new baccalaureate programs for UAFS, and once again Higher Education Director Hardin sounds a warning. "I'm sure we'll approve some more baccalaureate degrees," Hardin said, "but we don't want to see the technical mission compromised. [U of A President] Alan Sugg and [Westark President] Joel Stubblefield have given assurances that it won't be. Westark is a model for the nation in its responsiveness to business."

The subject of new bachelor's degrees at the Fort Smith institution will be "a prime topic of discussion" at a Higher Education Board meeting Oct. 19 on the U of A campus at Fayetteville, Hardin said. "We don't want them to come to us with things like architecture and anthropology." Unnecessary duplication of existing programs, in other words. (Stubblefield told the Arkansas Times, "We don't intend to offer archaeology through zoology.")

Of course, if Westark and the U of A want more than the Board of Higher Education will approve, the institutions could do what Westark did before — go over the board's head to the legislature. A former legislator himself, Hardin doubts that tactic would work again. Money is tight, and legislators and the public know the need to avoid duplication, Hardin said, while term-limits have made it harder to slip local-interest bills through the legislature.

 The merger of Westark into the U of A system is significant in another way. Although the four-year universities once resisted the establishment of two-year colleges, the U of A and Arkansas State University systems are now happy to affiliate with two-year colleges, at least the colleges with the brightest prospects. Absorbing two-year colleges is a way for a university to increase its share of the limited dollars for higher education in Arkansas. Sometimes the U of A and ASU compete for the hand of the same college. On the other side, two-year schools believe they gain in prestige and clout by association with a state university. Westark will become the sixth two-year college operating under the University of Arkansas umbrella and governed by the U of A Board of Trustees. (The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith will retain a Board of Visitors, operating mostly in an advisory capacity.) Cossatot Technical College at De Queen and Petit Jean Community College in Morrilton joined the U of A system earlier this year. Three two-year colleges are affiliated with ASU.

The Department of Higher Education is normally not involved in the merger of a two-year college with a university system, deeming that a local matter. But Hardin keeps an eye on mergers, and the Department might intervene if it appeared that all the two-year colleges were lining up with one or the other of the university systems. Fourteen two-year colleges, not counting Westark, remain independent. "I think it's extremely healthy to have some independent two-year colleges, to protect the technical mission," Hardin said. "We don't want just feeder schools for the four-year universities. Has that occurred? No. Could it occur? Yes. Alan Sugg has been the two-year schools' best friend. His successor might not be."

 Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of two-year colleges, is quick to agree that the big story of Arkansas higher education over the last decade is the rise of the two-year colleges.

"We've doubled the number of credit students at the two-year colleges in the last 10 years, from 20,000 to 40,000." Franklin said. "University enrollment has basically remained level. Our growth includes a huge increase in minority enrollment. At the same time, we've served another 40,000 non-credit students. This is workforce training, where business and industry contract with a local college to provide customized training that helps workers get a job, or a better job. Last year, we served more than 1,600 companies."

Why the boom? Mostly, it's a case of catching up, Franklin said. "Community colleges blossomed across the United States in the '70s and '80s. We didn't develop ours until 1991."

 Several of Arkansas's four-year universities began as two-year institutions, often known as "junior colleges." Little Rock Junior College, a private school, was the forerunner of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for example.

But the concept of the modern, two-year, "community college," with its double mission of college credit courses and workforce training, didn't take root in Arkansas until the mid-'60s. State Rep. M. Olin Cook of Russellville knows the history as well as anyone. After working his way through a Mississippi community college — "It was the only way I could go" — Cook proceeded to earn a doctorate in education. He came to work for the Arkansas Department of Higher Education in 1964. Coincidentally, that was the same year Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow the creation of publicly funded community colleges. The chambers of commerce in Sebastian and Phillips Counties were the chief promoters of the amendment. Fort Smith Junior College, founded as a private institution, had been operating since 1928. Phillips County had no college but wanted one. After the passage of enabling legislation in 1965, Sebastian County and Phillips County voters approved local tax levies for Arkansas's first community colleges.

The 1965 funding formula for community colleges proved too stingy with state money, demanded too much of local taxes and student tuition. No more community colleges were approved by local voters, and several were defeated — in Garland County and Mississippi County, at Mountain Home and El Dorado.

In 1971, a new governor, Dale Bumpers, proposed to put more state money into the creation of community colleges. Cook, by then the director of DHE, was in full agreement. Some presidents of four-year colleges, and their legislative allies, were opposed. Bumpers' bill passed, after a fight, but with a provision that Arkansas could have no more than eight community colleges.

Three new community colleges were established in 1973: East Arkansas ( Forrest City), Garland County (Hot Springs) and North Arkansas (Harrison). Mississippi County Community College (Blytheville) was established in 1974.

The explosion came in 1991. By then, Cook had left DHE for an administrative position at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. A future DHE director, Lu Hardin, was a state senator, as well as a faculty member at Arkansas Tech.

Sens. Allen Gordon of Morrilton and Nick Wilson of Pocahontas offered a saturation approach to community college. They were the principal sponsors of a bill to convert 13 state vocational-technical schools into community colleges. Each had a vo-tech school in his district, of course, as did other sponsors of the bill. Still, they were a vote short, according to Hardin, until they went to Sen. Steve Luelf of Mountain Home, which had no vo-tech school, and promised him a community college too, making a total of 14 new community colleges. Hardin opposed the legislation, and offered a competing bill that would have let only five vo-tech schools become community colleges.

"I didn't think the state could absorb 14," Hardin said. "My opposition to that bill was part of my long-running differences with Nick Wilson. I was friends with Allen Gordon. It's to the credit of both of them that all 14 colleges gained accreditation from the North Central Association, and without compromising technical education. [Lu Hardin's father, Luther Hardin, had been the state director of vocational education, another reason for Lu's opposition to the Gordon-Wilson bill.]

"It's really been a success story," Hardin said. "Mid-South Community College in West Memphis is the focus of Crittenden County. It recently got a $12 million grant from the Reynolds Foundation. Mountain Home has one of the prettiest two-year colleges in the country."

A few years after that 1991 vote, Hardin was appointed director of higher education by Gov. Mike Huckabee. His longtime nemesis, Senator Wilson, was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and sent to federal prison in Florida, where he remains.

"I've grown to appreciate the mission of the two-year schools more than when I came to DHE four and a half years ago," Hardin said. "They provide opportunities for working men and women, some with families, who can't pull up and go to a four-year college, and for the recent high school graduate who is unready or unwilling to enter a four-year school. They also provide technical offerings to serve the employment needs of the businesses in the area."

And they're cheaper than four-year schools, a big reason for their growth. Tuition at two-year schools is in the $400-500 range. At four-year schools, it's $1,400-$1,500. Hardin explains: "Faculty salaries are lower. Physical plants are smaller, so there's less overhead. They don't have football to pay for."

Do the lower faculty salaries mean that instruction is inferior at the two-year schools? Hardin and Franklin, of the Association of Two-year colleges, say no. "Many Pulaski Tech students transfer to UALR for their last two years," Franklin said. "We find they do wonderfully. They say the quality of an English class at UALR is the same as the quality of an English class at Pulaski Tech. The reality is, you have master's-degree faculty members at both places."

The students are not inferior either, Hardin says. Every other year, he teaches a business-law course at an Arkansas institution. "I've taught the same course at UALR and Pulaski Tech. I have just as many A's at Pulaski as at UALR." The only difference, he said, was that the drop-out rate was higher at Pulaski Tech — "maybe 40 percent to 20 percent."

 "If we're so smart," the old question goes, "why aren't we rich?" The rise of the community colleges poses a similar question. If the two-year colleges are such a good thing, why does Arkansas continue to rank 49th among the states in college graduates per capita, which most people in higher education consider a bad thing? (West Virginia is 50th.)

Franklin said the explanation was simply that Arkansas hadn't caught up with the states who developed community college systems earlier. One way to increase the number of college graduates is to increase the number of college students, and two-year colleges do that, Franklin said. "We're not taking students away from the four-year colleges. Our student is the person you sat next to in high school who never thought about going to college. They get out of school and work a few years, and they realize they have a reason to go back to school." With jobs and families restricting their mobility, they're most likely to enroll at a community college, he said.

Representative Cook said that studies in other states, and in Phillips County, have shown that community colleges increase the number of college graduates. But he also said there's a point of diminishing returns. Fourteen colleges at once was too many, he said. "Some of them will never amount to much in size, and the small ones will be very expensive for the state in per-student cost." Cook, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, also opposed the bill this year allowing Westark to become a four-year college. "Arkansas doesn't need more four-year colleges. We probably have too many for our population already."

Bakke suggests there's too much emphasis on degrees. "We're working with the Department of Higher Education on new standards for determining 'success.' If your company sends you to take two courses, and you complete them satisfactorily and get a better-paying job, that's a success."

Hardin's DHE is committed to raising the number of graduates, and wants more state money to do it, but he acknowledges Bakke's complaint. In the long run, the two-year schools should improve the Arkansas graduation rate, Hardin said, but this may require some redefinition of "graduate."

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