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Southern Arkansas University wants to offer its first doctoral degree.

The Magnolia university has started processes with the state and its accrediting agency to change its role and scope to offer degrees above the master's level. Once that is approved, the university needs a green light to offer its first doctoral degree -- a doctor of education in rural and diverse education leadership.

"If this is a climb up the mountain, we just left the base camp," said David Lanoue, the university's provost and vice president of academic affairs. "We think of this as a role and scope change, and we take that seriously, but it's also, I think, a logical extension of our mission as a comprehensive regional university, to serve southwest and southern Arkansas.

"It came out of the conversations: What can we do to serve our community better? And one of the things we can do is to help provide strong leaders in education."

The doctoral degree program would be a first of its kind south of Little Rock. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers a doctorate in aquaculture and fisheries, and Henderson State University in Arkadelphia has two educational specialist pathways in curriculum leadership and another in educational leadership. The educational specialist programs are foundations for a doctorate in that area but not the full degree program, though Henderson also wants to add a doctoral program in instructional leadership.

"We have been studying this for quite some time now about the possibility of a doctoral degree in this area," SAU President Trey Berry said. "We've done extensive surveys about this and see extensive need in our region of the state."

The university surveyed employers and potential students, as well as its own employees. Questions ranged from how many open positions employers had in fields such as assistant principal and curriculum facilitator to when employers anticipated such openings.

In one question, 62 of 93 responders said their businesses would have up to 10 employees who would benefit from the proposed degree. In another, about three-quarters of the 106 responders said they would consider pursuing such a degree from SAU. About 43 of 77 responders said they were most interested in educational leadership for kindergarten through 12th grades, and about 71 of 106 said it was extremely important to get a tuition waiver to pursue a doctoral degree in education.

On top of that, the university's graduate programs -- it can offer up to a master's degree -- have "just exploded" over the past three years, Berry said. Overall enrollment in graduate programs is slightly down this year because computer science dominates the area, and that field of study enrolls many international students, Lanoue said.

But graduate programs in education make up "a fairly good proportion of everyone else," he said.

In its graduate education programs, enrollment has typically hovered between 275 to nearly 300 since fall 2012, data show. This fall, the programs have 407 students, a nearly 40 percent increase from the year before.

SAU received permission from the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board to put the wheels in motion late last month. From there, the university has to hire three out-of-state consultants to conduct an on-site visit and review specific elements of SAU's proposed program, including whether the university has the capacity -- necessary faculty and resources -- to carry out the doctoral program, said Alisha Lewis, associate director of communications for the state Department of Higher Education.

The department chooses those consultants, all of whom will likely come from other institutions within the 16-member states of the Southern Regional Education Board that have the same research and policy analysis classification, student population sizes and other characteristics, she said.

The university estimates the consultants would cost about $1,000 to $1,500 each, but the ultimate costs will depend on which states the consultants hail from and how long they stay, Lanoue said.

SAU has the basic infrastructure for an online-only, three-year doctoral program in education, he said. If the program is approved, he expects the university will need to hire two more faculty members, including one to direct the program.

During the coordinating board meeting, Chairman Sherrel Johnson of El Dorado asked why the university was homing in on rural studies.

"Because of the unique demographic in south Arkansas, a lot of our school districts, of course, are rural school districts, and they face unique challenges that we think this program will address throughout the region," said Berry, the university president. "So it's specifically targeted to the needs of the types of school districts that are in south Arkansas."

In a separate interview, El Dorado School District Superintendent Jim Tucker said there appeared to be many opportunities in north Arkansas for educators to earn a doctoral degree in the field. Arkansas Tech University in Russellville underwent the same process as SAU, gaining a role and scope change to offer its first doctor of education degree in May 2015.

But there were slim pickings in the southern half of the state, Tucker said.

"You just don't see that in south Arkansas, and a lot of that is about convenience," he said. "We're in the business of education, and we feel like the better educated we are, the better service we can provide to our district."

The No. 1 challenge, he said, is teacher recruitment. The district has a difficult time keeping employees, especially those who do not have a tie to the area. Even though the city is thriving, he said, it doesn't have the numbers of businesses that Little Rock, Fort Smith or Jonesboro have and, subsequently, may have fewer resources from which to draw.

The El Dorado district currently does not have any employees with a doctoral degree, he said, adding that having the highest degree could better equip employees to deal with some of the challenges the district faces.

"Mainly, I hope it's granted," he said of the SAU proposal. "I would like to just further my education and have other people in southern Arkansas have the opportunity to do so. We want our district to have the very best possible superintendent or school leader."

After the consultants' review, the three will provide a report back to the state. If approved, the school will need approval from the coordinating board on the academic program. It will then need the green light from its accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, on both the role and scope change and the program.

A role and scope change would allow the university to offer other doctoral degrees.

SAU is hoping to have the doctoral degree in rural and diverse education in place by fall 2019.

Metro on 11/06/2017

Print Headline: Doctoral program in works at SAU

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