(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 338-340, 363-364)
To avoid losing potential students, Dr. [Steven] Gamble continued the traditional policy of boasting the state’s lowest public university tuition. He began to question whether “this long-time marketing strategy was really providing a competitive edge,” as he told the faculty in 1996, because he had met many parents who were unaware that SAU was the least expensive. As a result, he was not hesitant about increasing fees. SAU in the 1990s, like all other universities in the state and the United States, added a wide variety of fees that increased students’ bills. Fees were charged per credit hour not only for labs and activity, both long-standing charges, but also for technology, library, recreation, health, and athletics, among other items. The Arkansas legislature mandated athletic fees in an effort to limit small universities’ football and other sports programs’ rising deficits. Fan support did not cover their costs. The legislature placed a cap on the use of state funds for sports, requiring that auxiliary profits and student fees cover any deficits. The distinction between tuition and the various fees for a full-time student was largely fictional. In some cases, fees were used to create the illusion that tuition rates were only modestly rising.
Tuition rates skyrocketed for two decades after 1990 throughout the United States, and parents and students complained. These increases occurred in part because of a relative decline in state support of universities, a fact not often recognized. By 1996–97, for example, only 14.42 percent of Arkansas revenues went to higher education, 4 percent lower than the highest point in 1979–80 when its share was 18.4 percent. Higher education’s portion did increase again after 2000 but remained below 16 percent for the remainder of SAU’s first century. From 1980 to 1997, state spending overall adjusted for inflation grew 87 percent and for public education 99 percent. Higher education increased only 59 percent.
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After Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president in 1992, Lieutenant Governor Jim Guy Tucker became Arkansas’s new chief executive and pursued a more tightfisted policy toward higher education. He allowed virtually no funding increases in 1993 and sought university presidents’ agreement in 1995 to a new budget formula based in part on productivity, a concept on the cutting edge of higher education reform. Productivity was to be measured by numerical standards in sixteen categories, such as rates of retention and graduation, increased diversity, reduced administrative costs, and others factors. Dr. Gamble, knowledgeable about Texas’s efforts to implement productivity funding, played a major role as chair of the committee that devised the formula. Arkansas, like Texas and most other states that tried to quantify productivity, found it almost impossible to transform the concept—attractive in the abstract—into a practical and fair numerical formula, taking into account the differences in students, programs, and missions of universities and community colleges. When Governor Tucker resigned from office, his push for productivity funding was scrapped, but the idea of funding on a basis other than numbers of enrolled students remained very much alive among higher education reformers. They especially wanted to use it as an incentive for universities to increase graduation rates, a special economic problem in Arkansas where numbers of college graduates remained far behind those of other states.
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Dr. Gamble regarded a productivity formula as being in SAU’s best interest. Having served in admissions offices, Dr. Gamble was an enrollment management expert. He understood that given population decline in South Arkansas, SAU was unlikely to gain much funding based on admitting greater numbers of new students. A productivity formula that included a retention measure, however, would reward efforts to prevent dropouts and retain students. He initiated a number of measures to improve retention. Perhaps the most important was to establish a freshman advising and assistance center, first directed by Sarah Jennings and subsequently by Shelly Whaley. The center replaced a checkered system of faculty advising. In addition, all students were required to enroll in a freshman seminar course designed to help students bond with SAU and learn useful study skills. During the 1990s, freshman retention rates increased from about 56 percent to 68 percent, ranking SAU second among the state universities. Enrollment peaked in 1990 at 2,773 and then fell as happened at almost all four-year schools after the conversion of the vo-techs to the less expensive community colleges. SAU’s student population remained at about 2,600 during much of the remaining decade.
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Another internal source of funding for the Blue and Gold Vision [of Dr. David Rankin] was increased student payments. Dr. Rankin had long thought that starving SAU’s budget in order to remain the state’s least expensive university was not an appropriate strategy in the modern era. He understood the school’s tradition that began when students were poor farm boys and girls who had to pay their own way, some with jobs on campus. He knew that most SAU students came from families of modest means. According to Bronwyn Sneed, director of financial aid, some 84 percent qualified for some form of aid. The wider availability of aid, however, enabled students to pay more and reduced the need to continue the least expensive policy. Moreover, [SAU President] Dr.[David] Rankin knew, as Dr. Gamble had noted in 1996, that there was little empirical evidence that students and families chose SAU principally due to its low cost. In fact, Dr. Rankin thought that they likely shared the mind-set that polls revealed about well-to-do families who sent children to the nation’s most expensive private universities. Inexpensive was seen as cheap and of less value. Therefore an appropriate marketing strategy for SAU in modern times, he was convinced, was to have costs comparable to other Arkansas universities. This goal was achieved by 2007. SAU then ranked seventh out of the eleven state universities, slightly more expensive than four schools but less than six others. By 2008–09, students might expect to pay for a year at SAU a minimum of $12,286 (tuition and fees, $5,686; room and board, $4,250; books, $350; personal needs, $2,000). Increased charges permitted SAU to offer facilities and programs that had been available years earlier at other Arkansas universities. Despite increased costs, enrollment remained more than three thousand students, no doubt due in part to the efforts of new Dean of Enrollment Sarah Jennings and her staff. For many students, scholarship awards paid tuition charges. For children and spouses of SAU faculty and staff, Dr. Rankin restored the full tuition waivers that Dr. Gamble had reduced. Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 87, approved by the voters in 2008, made more assistance for future students possible. It authorized a state lottery dedicated to funding college scholarships.
An important reason for the magnitude of SAU tuition and fee increases was the state’s continuing failure to adequately fund higher education. Governor Mike Huckabee and the legislature in 2005 provided the largest increase for higher education in a decade. Nonetheless, Dr. Linda Beene, director of the Department of Higher Education, noted that the amount was still less than 75 percent of the needs her department and the schools themselves identified. In addition, she admitted that in constant dollars it was $200 million short of what was needed to get back to the funding levels of 2000–01. Dr. Beene acknowledged, in 2006, “In terms of constant dollars, funding for higher education is lower now than it was in 1979 in Arkansas.”
Because of lagging state support and increased tuition, an ever-larger percentage of SAU revenues came from tuition. By 2008–09, the university received more funding from students than from the state. That academic year, 41.5 percent of revenues came from tuition and fees versus 39.2 percent from state appropriations. These contrasting numbers provided a concrete illustration of why public universities across the nation declared that they were no longer state-supported institutions but rather state-assisted ones. Dr. Rankin spoke about Arkansas’s “disinvestment” in higher education and led a successful effort to unite the universities in a new organization, the Arkansas Association of Public Universities, in spring 2006 to make the case for more support.