Over the past few years, Arkansas Baptist College has received media attention for its troubled finances, administrative mishaps and sharp declines in enrollment. The new leadership at this HBCU is hoping to turn a new page in the institution’s long history.
“We realized what people read in the news is very short-sighted, so we know we have to be intentional about telling our story and reintroducing the campus,” said President Joseph Jones, who began his tenure at the historically Black college last year.
The Little Rock institution ran into trouble several years ago when the student population grew too quickly for the college’s infrastructure. Arkansas Baptist went from serving under 200 students in 2006 to over 1100 in 2011. This rapid growth burdened the financial aid office, explained Dr. Fitz Hill, the former president of the college. Despite the increase in volume, the office’s personnel were still manually processing the students.
“We grew too fast. We didn’t have the technology and infrastructure to manage that significant growth,” said Hill, who served as president from 2006 to 2016. He said while his primary focus had been increasing enrollment, he eventually realized the importance of balancing and optimizing the student population through campus infrastructure. Hill recalled having to rent out apartment buildings and hotels to provide dormitories for students. “What I learned through that process is that bigger is not better. Better is better.”
Enrollment has dropped dramatically since 2011. This fall, the student body is just under 600. Even with the smaller numbers, Jones has found the business side of running the college to be much more difficult than expected.
“Arkansas Baptist College has had its trouble with finances, and we’re really trying to navigate those waters to ensure that we move to become more sustainable,” he said. “That’s something I completely underestimated.”
Currently under heightened oversight by the Department of Education, the college submits forms for reimbursement each month. As a result of negligence on both sides, payments to college employees were delayed in both July and November this year.
Despite these bumps, Jones has a vision for holistic recovery.
Since assuming the presidency, he and his team have begun implementing, “The Way, The Truth, The Life,” a strategic plan designed to candidly address institutional weaknesses at the college.
“The reason we use those intentional words is that they come from the Bible,” said Jones. “Because Arkansas Baptist College has a really strong Christian heritage and legacy, we want to be intentional about letting students, stakeholders and supporters know that you’re coming into a Christian institution.”
The Christian mission is more than just a slogan. As the only Black Baptist college west of the Mississippi River, Arkansas Baptist College was founded in 1884 to educate the sons and daughters of former slaves. Today, the institution serves high numbers of low-income and under-resourced students from across the country, providing both two-year, four-year and GED programs. With “The Way, The Truth, The Life,” Jones said that difficult choices would need to be made for its mission to continue.
“The Way” means shifting the business model to focus on student success, investing in everything from infrastructure to personnel while reimagining the institution’s brand to enhance its reputation locally and globally.
“We definitely need to provide a new look and bring additional resources to the college,” Jones said. “The way we introduce ourselves to the world has got to change.”
“The Truth” he said, means being transparent about how the administration can better use its resources. Jones hopes to be able to have these difficult discussions to ensure financial solvency and academic effectiveness.
Finally, “The Life” means revitalizing the leadership culture at Arkansas Baptist College through data-driven decision-making. Within the first few months of his tenure, Jones invited consultants to the campus to determine how the administration can become more accountable and transparent.
“If we know a student is not doing well in a class based on the data, we want to intervene to impact our retention rate,” said Jones “Right now, we don’t have that data accessible to us.”
Dr. Mark Perry, vice president of administration explained that a data analytics platform would help highlight and address the deflating figures.
“Jenzabar is the platform that we will use to integrate all of the information that needs to be shared across the college,” said Perry. “From the first point of contact with the student all the way through to the point they’re an alumni of the college.”
Tameka Harper, vice president of enrollment management and dean of students, said data will help inform more interpersonal approaches to student success.
“We’re looking at more aggressive early alert programs, academic coaches. It’s a closer-knit communication style,” she said. This ability to have face-to-face conversations with students, according to Harper, is one of the advantages of being a smaller institution.
“We know each of the students, not just by name but by story,” she said. “A lot of our students are not the ones we first recruited, but here at Arkansas Baptist College, they are made to feel they are an integral part of the fabric of this institution.”
Apart from the traditional recruiting methods of visiting local high schools and inviting guidance counselors to the campus, Jones explained that the college will also focus on out-of-state recruiting from places like California, where community college students are guaranteed transfers to select HBCUs if they fulfill certain academic requirements.
Much work lies ahead for President Jones. Each week, he has lunch with first-year students on Wednesdays and attends on-campus worship on Sundays. In this mission of serving underprivileged students in an under-resourced environment, Jones sees reflections of his own past.
“Having the opportunity to come here to work with the population of students that have the same kind of story as me, that was the draw,” he said. “I was a very marginal student. It wasn’t until I went to an HBCU that I was able to excel and do very well because I had people take the time and be patient with me.”
Joseph Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org