Williams Baptist College consistently had at least 500 full-time students each year since the Great Recession began in 2008, but the number dropped to 435 this fall, a 13% decline from the fall of 2015.
School officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause, but WBC will undertake a program to rebuild its student roster in the coming year, WBC President Dr. Tom Jones told Talk Business & Politics.
“We hope to have 545 students by September (2017),” Jones said. “We think we can grow by 20%-25%.”
Why enrollment numbers have dropped at colleges and universities across Arkansas has been the subject of much conjecture among administrators statewide this fall, Jones said. The state offered less scholarship money to freshmen through its Arkansas Challenge Scholarship this fall as compared to recent years. The economy has improved in recent years, and it means less people are seeking a higher education because jobs are more plentiful, Jones said.
Two online programs are at the center of those student recruitment efforts. WBC hopes to offer a master of arts in teaching program. Many college students graduate, and then decide to teach, Jones said. The program will allow non-traditional college graduates to attain their teaching certifications. Arkansas allows non-traditional college graduates to teach while seeking a degree like this, which can be beneficial to the student, Jones said.
WBC also hopes to institute an online criminal justice major. The program will cater to students who seek professions within the criminal justice system. Police officers, workers in the prison system and others may seek to take classes, he said. Independence County Sheriff’s Department training sergeant Brian Luetschwager was hired in November to spearhead the new program, according to the school.
Both programs are in the accreditation phase. The school should know in the spring if the programs will be approved by the Higher Learning Commission. WBC Vice-President for Institutional Advancement Brett Cooper said the new programs are in the infancy stage. Cost estimates and student enrollment goals are still in the planning stages.
“We feel confident that we’re putting together a good plan,” Cooper said.
The private liberal arts college, located on U.S. 67 on the outskirts of Walnut Ridge, will also develop new athletic programs next fall. The school will add men’s and women’s track and field, swim teams, and golf. The school also hopes to offer Roman-Greco wrestling training, and if the program is established, it would be one of the few colleges in the country that offers the sport, Jones said.
“It could be a unique opportunity for us,” Jones said.
WBC expansion efforts don’t only extend to their athletic and online offerings. Construction on the new 43-bed Belle Hall dormitory should be completed by early summer, Jones said. The $2.5 million project has been primarily funded through private donations.
Longtime college supporters Jim and Connie Butler of Harrisburg donated $500,000 toward the project, according to the school. Connie’s maiden name was Belle, and the structure is named in her family’s honor. The new dorm will house female students, and Nicholas Hall, which also houses female students, will become a male dorm next fall.
The two-story, 9,800-square-foot building will have a near identical design to Nicolas Hall. It was have a spacious open lobby, study room, laundry room, kitchen, and other amenities. About 75% of students live on campus, according to school information.
WBC was originally founded as Southern Baptist College in 1941 by Dr. H.E. Williams. The campus was founded near the Walnut Ridge Airport in 1947, and the surrounding area became College City. Walnut Ridge and College City merged earlier this year.
The college is owned and operated by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. It offers at least 25 majors and pre-professional programs to students who attend.