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A two-year college is considering merging with either the University of Arkansas or Arkansas State University systems.

College of the Ouachitas is doing so because its state insurance causes its liability to increase to $5.2 million, which the college president said is an inaccurate representation of the college's liability.

"We're the only school it affects to this extent," President Steve Rook said.

Having this liability on the books could affect the college's ability to obtain loans and bonds. Because of this, while the law has been in effect, the college has sought help from local lenders.

College of the Ouachitas is having a meeting at 5 p.m. today in the campus Administration Building lecture hall to hear thoughts from residents of Malvern, where the college is located.

For two years, the college has been looking at joining a larger system to gain the system's insurance and abandon the state insurance that, when tied with federal law, drives up the price of insurance, Rook said.

The UA and ASU systems both released statements confirming that there have been conversations between the systems and the college but that the College of the Ouachitas will need to decide if it wants to further pursue the initiative.

If the college chooses to join the UA system, it will connect with an organization that has seven community colleges. ASU has four. Most recently, the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College, based in North Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain, based in Mena, became part of the UA System in 2017.

The College of the Ouachitas is still weighing the pros and cons of joining a larger system. If officials don't choose to go with either the UA or ASU system, the school will begin shopping for new insurance, but because of the college's small size -- College of the Ouachitas has 110 full-time employees -- Rook said he worries that any insurance plan would be expensive.

"There's strength in numbers when it comes to health insurance," Rook said.

There are other benefits to joining a system, the president said.

Aligning with a larger system would grant the college benefits such as expanded legal and technological resources, Rook said. Being related to the UA or ASU systems would also give the College of the Ouachitas either of the university systems' name recognition.

"I mean, everybody knows the University of Arkansas," Rook said.

He added that ASU has a stronghold in nearby Saline County, and its name recognition has grown significantly in the past 10 years, which would benefit the college.

"I think that that is exactly what our students need," Malvern City Council member Lynn Davis said.

Davis said she thinks that if the college joined a system, it would be able to expand programs and bring more opportunities to its students. She said she is looking forward to today's meeting.

Buying supplies would also be easier under a system because it's cheaper to make purchases in bulk along with several other universities, Rook said.

But joining either the UA or ASU systems would mean that the college would give up its locally governing board of trustees, taking away some of the college's independence, Rook said.

City Council member J. Wayne Reynolds said he wants to learn more about the proposition.

"Normally I would like to see it stay local, but if there's some benefit to it, I couldn't object to it," Reynolds said.

Pulaski Tech Chancellor Margaret Ellibee said merging with the UA system has been a positive experience for her community college.

"Our transition into the system was seamless," Ellibee said.

Since the transition, it's easier for Pulaski Tech students to transfer to four-year UA universities without having to repeat classes unnecessarily.

"When you don't have to repeat classes, then you don't have to spend as much money on tuition," Ellibee said.

Pulaski Tech employees have received better health benefits and have been able to network further with professionals within the UA system. The college has also been able to purchase contracts easier, Ellibee said.

But she said that each college is different and has to evaluate the decision individually, weighing the consequences of aligning with a system.

"It's not a cookie-cutter approach," Ellibee said.

Metro on 11/12/2018

Print Headline: Malvern college studies benefits of joining university system

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