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UA Rich Mountain grows amid declining enrollments

Submitted by UARM

While headlines across the state and nation report declining college enrollments, the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain is not declining but growing in all the right ways.

Overall enrollment at the local college is up 4% compared to last fall, with the exception of the 60+ program which had to be temporarily suspended due to the on-going pandemic and concerns for student safety. The SSCH (student semester credit hours) is up 6%, which is an increasingly important performance criterion in higher education as it relates to state funding since the Arkansas Department of Higher Education implemented a new funding formula four years ago.

Chancellor Phillip Wilson explained that much of the SSCH spike can be attributed to the 134 full-time student athletes.

Building the athletics program and adding residential housing go ‘hand-in-hand,’ Wilson explained. “It’s significantly extended our recruiting area as well as the fact that these student-athletes are full-time students who plan to transfer after completing their degree at Rich Mountain, which is also an important criterion in the state’s funding formula for colleges. We have also found that many of these students are our top performing academic students as well.” 

UA Rich Mountain is just one of two colleges in the University of Arkansas System to see growth this semester. Wilson admitted that adding athletics, housing, and food service has been one of the greatest challenges of his career that could not have happened without the support of a great faculty and staff. “Seeing the numbers this fall semester only proves our concern that not taking such bold strategic initiatives left us vulnerable and could have resulted in us announcing dismal news such as budget freezes and lay-offs.”

Of course, all of these decisions were made before the challenges of the COVID pandemic were added, “We certainly didn’t anticipate opening these facilities during a pandemic but the particular design we chose for cost savings has turned out to be the best possible design for residential living in these conditions,” said Wilson.

Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs Chad Fielding said the college did experience a decline in part-time students and non-traditional students which he speculated could be related to employment or child care issues that prevented them from returning to classes.  He explained that the demographics of the student body have changed significantly since the campus has transformed to providing residential living and an expanding athletics program.

Wilson said it is a ‘win-win.’ “We’re in a new position to serve both of these demographics well now. In addition, we’re bringing new people and new families into our community as well. We’re adding new programs and new instructors to accommodate the growth in full-time student enrollment.”

Another strategic decision that has proven key to success in serving students during the challenges of the pandemic was led by Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs Krystal Thrailkill, who recognized students who register for an in-person class, prefer just that, an in-person experience and not an on-line experience. 

Thrailkill first extended the class periods which would allow the students to meet the classroom instruction requirements by the Thanksgiving holiday. Students will then transition to remote instruction/online for the remainder of the semester with all finals being on-line. This allows students to return home and not have to return to campus until the spring semester resumes mid-January.

Second, Thrailkill built flex schedules for the larger classes, most commonly, general education classes. For example, one class of English Composition I would use two classrooms providing ample space for students to be physically distanced. The instructor will rotate days that she is physically present in one classroom with a video feed of their instruction running in the adjacent classroom.  The Ouachita Center event venue has also been transformed into all instructional space that also allows for larger classroom space.

“Being in a smaller community and being a smaller campus has truly been to our benefit in navigating the many challenges presented by this pandemic,” explained Wilson.

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