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UALR's eVersity concerns debated

Enrollment drop possible, it says

Posted: August 4, 2014 at 3:12 a.m.

 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL --10/8/13-- UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson makes a presentation Tuesday afternoon to the UALR Board of Visitors about a possible site for the Little Rock Technology Park adjacent to the UALR campus.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL --10/8/13-- UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson makes a presentation Tuesday afternoon to the UALR Board of Visitors about a possible site for the Little Rock Technology Park adjacent to the UALR campus.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Joel E. Anderson sat mostly silent as the university's Board of Visitors recently peppered the UA System president and vice president for academic affairs with questions about the pending addition of the system's newest university.

Called eVersity, the $7 million online school will likely draw from a pool of nontraditional degree-seeking students, officials said, similar to UALR's demographic.

Board members, organized in a horseshoe of tables facing system President Donald Bobbitt and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Moore, expressed concern about whether eVersity will further affect UALR's already declining enrollment and funding.

But Anderson said after the Tuesday meeting that the university -- like the system's four other universities -- doesn't yet have a set plan to offset any concerns about eVersity.

It's early, Anderson said, and there are a lot of moving parts.

"It's one of those things where nobody is standing still," he said.

EVersity isn't expected to start up for at least another year, and schools so far have different expectations about how the online school will affect them.

Dozens of institutions and hundreds of degree programs are approved already for operation in Arkansas' distance-learning market, which Bobbitt said will target as many as 356,000 people.

At UALR, where enrollment has dropped three years in a row, officials have noted eVersity could pose additional enrollment concerns if it acts more as a competitor to the school than an agent.

"If the UA System establishes a competing institution that draws away students from one of its campuses, that has an effect on the campus," Anderson said after the Board of Visitors meeting Tuesday.

Anderson added that "across the campus, there's a good bit of concern about it."

Bobbitt told the school's Board of Visitors that UALR's student demographic is likely going to align with eVersity, with many students being drawn from the same pool of nontraditional prospects in need of a more flexible course schedule.

But Bobbitt repeatedly emphasized that online schools are already present in the state, potentially pulling students away from UA schools.

"It's not just Phoenix," he said. "Missouri's here, Cincinnati is here, Missouri State is here. ... It's happening very quickly."

Bobbitt and Moore want to start an accredited, systemwide university separate from each school's existing online programs, complete with data analytics measuring students' predicted aptitudes as well as mid-degree certificates and a focus on high retention rates.

The university will be run entirely using tuition money, unlike the system's brick-and-mortar schools, which have faced stagnant state funding and increasing reliance on tuition.

Moore said the online school could be up and running by October 2015, although it would not yet be accredited.

At the University of Arkansas at Forth Smith, Chancellor Paul Beran compared his campus with UALR but noted that he's optimistic students who already chose to go there will continue to do so for the traditional college experience.

Additionally, he sees eVersity as offering flexibility to UA-Forth Smith's students, who might occasionally use it or see an advantage in transferring to it altogether.

"Honestly, I don't have any problem defending our position in helping students get degrees in the most efficient way they can," Beran said.

"My first and foremost concern in this is helping students, not protecting the institution.

"I think what people have to keep in mind is that there's an awful lot of people who need higher education," he said.

Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admission at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said she doesn't see much potential for eVersity to siphon students from her school.

"These programs are on two different trains," she said.

UA-Fayetteville, the system's flagship school, has the highest enrollment in the UA System, with more than 25,000 students -- more than twice UALR's enrollment of more than 12,000.

At the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Jimmie Yeiser stressed that many of UAM's degree offerings don't match up with what he anticipates eVersity offering.

UAM students might seek a political science degree, for example, but eVersity students likely wouldn't, he said.

"My understanding is that they're going to be targeting ... [the] kinds of people that are going to be career- and job-oriented and may not necessarily be looking for the degree programs that we offer," he said.

Messages left with University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff staff were not returned last week.

In Little Rock last week, the Board of Visitors members had numerous questions about how eVersity would influence UALR.

With already diminishing enrollment and the potential for even more losses, Board Chairman Dean Kumpuris, who is also an at-large Little Rock city director, was concerned about the university's presence in the city if enrollment and revenue declined.

He called UALR's influence "remarkably important."

"We want UALR to continue on its upward trend and to succeed," he said, asking Bobbitt how to keep the school from becoming "a piece of real estate in 2025."

Moore told Kumpuris the risk for further enrollment declines already existed, citing Pulaski Technical College's online classes.

At the beginning of the meeting, Bobbitt told the board that he didn't "think the city has lived up to its obligations to help this campus advance," noting the perception of crime around the campus.

Anderson said after the meeting that he believed the city would work the university to address those issues.

As for revenue, Bobbitt and Moore said they hoped eVersity, particularly upon expanding outside Arkansas, would eventually profit and provide revenue to potentially redistribute to brick-and-mortar schools.

"The prospect of eventually generating enough dollars to share with the campus is a long way off," Anderson said after the meeting.

"We're all learning as we go along in a very rapidly changing higher education environment."

Metro on 08/04/2014

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