Education February/March 2016 Magazine

Education: Momentum in Magnolia

0101February/March 2016 Issue

Southern Arkansas University is seeing a major
enrollment increase thanks to new programs and low
tuition costs, and the university has an expansion
and broader fundraising campaign in the works.

Photography courtesy of Southern Arkansas University

Just 862 to go.

Based on fall 2015 enrollment figures, that’s how many more students Southern Arkansas University would need to achieve school President Trey Berry’s goal of 5,000. And he’s confident.

“We’re seeing growth in every area,” Berry told AMP. “We have record enrollment in our freshman class; we have a record number of students living on campus. We have a record number in our graduate program, and a record number of international students…. We’ve really worked hard at trying to market ourselves, and I think it’s paying off.”

It’s the third straight year the Magnolia university has achieved record enrollment. This past fall’s figure of 4,138 was up 16.7 percent over the previous year. Berry, who has set 2025 as the target date for the magic number of 5,000 and is in his first year as head of SAU, concedes the school needs the growth to stay even.

Innovation in education: SAU’s Computer Game & Animation Design program has been around for about two years and is one of the new programs helping to boost the university’s enrollment.

SAU’s Computer Game & Animation Design program has been around for about two years and is one of the new programs helping to boost the university’s enrollment.

He said all public universities — not just those in Arkansas but also across the nation — are experiencing an ongoing decline in the share of their budgets coming from state revenues; SAU’s is down to 31 percent. That means, to keep up with rising costs, SAU must get more of its money from tuition and fees, and from grants, donations and other private sources. Now, tuition is the largest contributor to the coffers, but Berry wants fundraising to equal it.

“We’re doing a feasibility study as we speak,” he said, “and we’re hopeful that a year from now we’re going to launch the most ambitious fundraising campaign in our history.”

He declined to identify a donation target for the campaign, saying that’s what the feasibility study will determine.

Keeping Costs Down

SAU’s efforts to attract more students have resulted in a larger array of areas of study. The Engineering, and Game, Animation and Simulation Design programs, started just two years ago, and have 130 and 100 students majoring in these subjects, respectively.

“We’ve started other new majors in Musical Theater and Wildlife Biology,” Berry said. “Next August, we’re proposing two new majors, one in Cybersecurity — as we all know, unfortunately that’s a growing field, but we know that the job market is there, and I think that’s going to be very attractive to this generation of students — and, then we’re starting an Engineering Technology degree.”

There will also be an Engineering Welding degree program conducted jointly with SAU Tech, a two-year college in Camden.

The new programs, he said, are one reason for the surge in enrollment. Another is the school’s aggressive recruiting methods. Berry said they’re targeting potential enrollees via social media and have expanded efforts to recruit international students. A third reason is SAU’s relatively low tuition.

“We were listed in a national poll as being the sixth-most affordable small university in the nation, so I think that’s really resonating with parents,” Berry said. SAU has just started the budget process and he doesn’t know whether tuition will be raised next year, but said, “We’re going to try to keep whatever we have to do at minimum.”

SAU officials said undergraduate tuition averages $11,480 for two semesters; room and board is another $5,588.

Sciences, along with a new Wildlife Biology major, are drawing students to SAU.

Sciences, along with a new Wildlife Biology major, are drawing students to SAU.

Making Room for Growth

In October, SAU broke ground on two new 132-bed residence halls that are scheduled to be ready by August and October 2016. Berry said the $12 million project was born of necessity.

“This fall, we had to really pack our students into our residence halls, and we didn’t feel that was a conducive thing for growth,” he said. “One of those will just be for the overload in our dorms that we have right now; that will already be filled, and the other one is for future growth. We left room on the building site in case we need to build another residence hall, and my hope is that we do.”

The city of Magnolia helped issue the bonds used to finance the new dorms, and the SAU Alumni Association served as the conduit. Association President David Butler explains, “The loan ran through us, and then the proceeds of the rent payments by the students will be used to pay it back, so it’s a great deal for everybody. We hope we have more housing units, more facilities — whatever we need. More restaurants in town, more people coming in to shop locally. All of those things go together.”

Rendering of one of the two residence halls that SAU plans to open by fall 2016.

Rendering of one of the two residence halls that SAU plans to open by fall 2016.

SAU is also constructing an academic building for engineering, and a track and field facility.

Butler, who graduated in 1976 from what was then Southern State College and is now an attorney, told AMP, “We always have a project going. A few years ago, we built the Alumni Bridge, which is in place now between the football field and what’s called the Welcome Center. We’re now in the process of raising money for a pavilion that will be used by the city and county for get-togethers and meetings…we don’t really have a good place like that here in Magnolia.”

Butler said everyone on the SAU alumni board acts as fundraisers for the college.

Mike Waters, the Magnolia Market president of BancorpSouth, played quarterback for the Muleriders and focuses on raising money for the athletic facilities. Sometimes donations are earmarked for specific departments; other times, they go to the Southern Arkansas University Foundation, which reported $2.38 million in cash contributions for 2014, up 39 percent from 2013.


Butler believes growth can continue for the next few years, but Berry said, “Every university president in the nation will tell you the number one thing that will be a risk or a challenge for anyone’s future is finances, because it impacts everything. I think another challenge is the perception that college is becoming expensive; we are trying our best to counter that with how hard we work to keep our costs down. And then, I think, a risk to any university is not to innovate…We want to be, not just on the curve, but ahead of the curve on the job market and what’s interesting to our students. I think we’ve shown down here that you don’t have to be on an interstate to have growth in your institution.”

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