The challenges of ‘constantly changing’ higher education in Arkansas

by Kelly Damphousse (kdamp@astate.edu) 419 views 

I began serving as chancellor at Arkansas State University one year ago. While it is exciting to look back at all that I have learned about Arkansas higher education, it is also important to look forward to the challenges and opportunities that face on-campus CEOs in our constantly changing environment.

As leaders must, I often find myself “peeking around the corner” seeking ways to best position our university for the future. While the ways we function are regularly being disrupted by things largely outside of our control, higher education leaders are properly held to an expectation of accountability – to our state leaders and our taxpayers, to our faculty and staff, and, perhaps most importantly, to our students and their parents. The question “Is college worth it?” has been around for decades, but the need to exhibit just how it is worth it has probably never been greater.

Our ability to deliver on these expectations was affected by the 2008 recession. One report estimates higher education state funding in 2017 was $9 billion less than it was in 2008. While neighboring states are still reeling from this loss, public funding for higher education in Arkansas has almost recovered to the pre-recession levels.

Unfortunately, the impact of the recession has had a lasting effect on tuition, which increased as state funding decreased. That is why Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s request that the state’s universities freeze tuition for in-state students this coming academic year was so widely embraced by my colleagues.

Despite these funding constraints, higher education rightfully continues to be held responsible for student outcomes. Nowhere is this quest for accountability more visible than in our state’s recent implementation of the Higher Education Productivity Funding Formula. Campuses will now be partially funded by the success, progress, and accomplishments of their students. The formula is appealing to me because it is a student-centered approach that focuses on ensuring that all qualified students have the opportunity to attend college, that they are provided the resources they need to graduate on time, and that these efforts benefit industry and the state.

As a result of the formula, observers of Arkansas higher education will likely see increased attention on the recruitment of students who might otherwise not have thought a college degree was possible and also on student success. At A-State, for example, our enhanced recruitment efforts have been coupled with our Chancellor’s Commission on Completion. Faculty and staff members have spent the past year eliminating policy and structural barriers to student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates while also creating a culture oriented toward improving student success – all based on the mantra that “Every Red Wolf Counts.”

The Arkansas State University System — with financial support from the governor — recently hired a consulting firm to compare campus and system-wide policies with best practices by our aspirational peers. The report is now influencing decisions made by my fellow chancellors and at the system office by removing redundancies and capitalizing on economies of scale.

One such innovation is the advent of public-private partnerships, where campuses enhance their infrastructure by partnering with private entities. A common model is for a campus to partner with commercial developers to build residential housing, just as we have done on our campus.

But there are other models. For example, A-State has partnered with New York Institute of Technology to bring a medical school to northeast Arkansas, with a developer to build an Embassy Suites hotel and the Red Wolf Convention Center, and with a developer to create the first American-style university in Mexico – A-State Campus Queretaro.

Is college worth it? Absolutely. Can we deliver it better and more efficiently? Certainly. While we never want to lose sight on our mission, campus leaders understand the need to innovate in these challenging times.
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Kelly Damphousse is chancellor of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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