When Black River Technical College President Eric Turner was selected to lead the two-year institution, he found a number of problems. The school, with its main campus in Pocahontas, was deficit spending, its student population and retention numbers were lagging, and the number of courses offered had become too numerous. Four years later, those problems still exist, but much progress has been made Turner told Talk Business & Politics.
“Black River Technical College puts people to work … we had to get back to that,” he said.
The budget was a primary concern when he started, Turner said. The school has an annual operating budget of about $14 million, per year. In 2016, the BRTC Board approved a $1.7 million deficit laden budget, and the deficit spending dropped to a $1.2 million overage in 2017. The 2018 budget has $500,000 in deficit spending, he said. The goal is for the college to be in the black by 2022, he added.
BRTC was fortunate that it had reserve funds to cover these deficits, Turner said. In order to cut budget spending, several changes had to be enacted, he said. Custodial services were outsourced, lawn care services were in sourced, travel by staff was cut and other budget tightening measures were taken.
Another problem faced by the school was student admission and retention. When he arrived at BRTC, Turner asked a fundamental question.
“How do students get here?” he asked.
“They just show up,” he was told.
A decade ago that was true, he said. When the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008, unemployment rates in the area skyrocketed, and like other community colleges enrollment swelled as workers tried to find new employment opportunities. In the fall of 2010, the school had an enrollment of about 2,500 students.
As the economy started to improve, the enrollment numbers dissipated. This last year the school had about 1,500 students, a 1% uptick from the previous year, Turner said. There has been an active effort by the school to connect with high school counselors in the four county area the college targets. Those counties are Randolph, Lawrence, Greene, and Clay. Ironically, Craighead County typically delivers the third most students to the school each year, he said.
A social media push has been successful, an effort to get high school students to take classes has gone well, he said. At least 15 students received their degrees from BRTC and at the same time were graduating from high school, he said. Many of these students are in healthcare and industrial technology programs. Some even join the workforce before high school is complete, and work for instance as CNAs at local nursing homes. Some make more money than their parents, he said.
BRTC was founded as a vocational and technical school in 1972. The school offers 27 certificate programs and 16 associate degree programs. It has 308,000-square-feet of classroom, and other usable, indoor space, and has 23 buildings that sit on 100 acres. The college also operates a satellite campus in Paragould.
One major step the college took was to construct a new nursing and science building. BRTC received a $9.5 million grant from the USDA Office of Rural Development in 2013 to build the 44,000-square-foot nursing and science building. It was opened in 2015 and allowed the college to expand all of its nursing programs, Turner said.
As many as 50% of the high school students in BRTC’s target region do not seek a higher level of education past high school, Turner said. Many could go into lucrative vocation trades such as plumbing, HVAC repair or could become welders, machinists, or electricians, he said. The school intends to expand and promote its vocational training options, especially its HVAC training program, he said. Turner recently had a conversation with the owner of a plumbing company in Paragould. The owner said he has plenty of jobs to do and one major problem.
“Plumbers are hard to find,” Turner said. “He told me he has real trouble finding people who can do this work.”