President Welch: Reflection Amid Uncertainty at Arkansas State University
Note: The following commentary appeared in the Aug. 21 edition of The Jonesboro Sun.
By Dr. Chuck Welch
We’re halfway through 2020, and I think most of us are ready to say “good riddance” amid the incredibly difficult loss of lives, challenges, and uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Arkansas State University and the ASU System place extraordinary focus on the health and safety of our employees and students, we are also compelled to continue fulfilling our mission of contributing to the educational, cultural, and economic advancement of Arkansas. We can be slowed – and in many ways transformed – by the pandemic, but not paralyzed.
Reflection is a valuable tool during difficult times, and today’s circumstances don’t diminish A-State’s achievements during the past decade. In fact, our initiatives and growth put us in a position of strength to endure difficult times and capitalize on opportunities in the years to come. It has now been almost ten years since the decision by ASU System Trustees to relocate the System office in Little Rock was met with great concern about how this decision would impact A-State and the local community. This is an ideal time to reflect on exactly what has transpired.
Academic quality and productivity have improved significantly at A-State.
- A-State now awards 129 percent more academic credentials than we did a decade ago and ranks second in Arkansas for total credentials annually. We’ve tripled graduate degrees from 472 in 2009 to 1,908 in 2019, and bachelor’s degree conferrals have jumped 29 percent. We had 12 doctoral graduates in 2009 and 65 in 2019.
- 50 percent fewer students require remedial courses, and our graduation rate is 27 percent higher than a decade ago. We have higher ACT and GPA averages among entering freshmen, and we retain far more first-time freshmen.
- A-State’s Carnegie Classification ranking has been elevated to “R2” research institution, and U.S. News & World Report upgraded us from “regional university” to “national university.”
Financially, A-State’s impact on the Jonesboro economy has always been substantial but has escalated since 2010 with:
- A 25 percent increase in annual payroll to $119 million, with 71 new jobs and total employment of 1,580.
- Total A-State operational expenditures of nearly $210 million annually – 47 percent more than in 2010 and mostly spent in the Jonesboro economy.
- Total new construction of $335 million in Jonesboro, mostly funded by donors and third-party initiatives, including $90 million for athletics facilities that attract visitors to the city. This doesn’t include the $100 million private investment that created A-State Campus Queretaro in Mexico.
- Development of the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine with an $88 million annual economic impact. The state’s second medical school has resulted in 560 students and employees – plus spouses or families – who have relocated to Jonesboro.
- Development of the city’s first full-service hotel and convention center with a $58 million investment by O’Reilly Hospitality Management and no local tax increase.
- Federal funding for research and public service has totaled nearly $123 million during the past decade.
- Sponsored funding through state, federal and private foundation sources averages $21 million annually.
Many major private gifts generated by A-State for academic programs, scholarships and athletics generally come from outside Jonesboro, but have a significant impact on the local community. The university has received $81 million in gifts and planned gifts of $1 million or more since 2010, and the ASU System Foundation net assets have grown 159 percent to $88.5 million.
With support from our Board of Trustees, we’ve also taken steps to strengthen the university’s financial position to weather today’s uncertainty. A-State now has 177 days of cash on hand compared with just 52 days a decade ago. This incredible improvement enables us to maintain an A1 bond rating by Moody’s Investor Services and keep long-term debt costs lower.
Today A-State has more students living in university housing compared with a decade ago, and we have more online enrollment than any other institution in Arkansas. Out of state enrollment – including online and Campus Queretaro – was 4,478 in 2019 compared with just 1,682 in 2009.
More A-State graduates are choosing to live in Craighead County with a 35 percent increase in alumni during the past decade.
In the decade ahead, A-State and Jonesboro will continue to see growing benefits from investments and partnerships. Statewide influence of the ASU System has also improved exponentially in the past decade, and will continue to grow with the additions of ASU Mid-South, ASU Three Rivers, Henderson State University and likely additional institutions.
These impressive improvements are the direct result of the work of the outstanding faculty, staff and students at A-State. Chancellor Kelly Damphousse and his team are now preparing to execute a new strategic plan for the university while exploring development of the state’s first veterinary school. An American red wolf conservation and education center will be a game-changer for ecotourism in the region.
Everyone at A-State and in the Jonesboro region should be proud of what we’ve achieved together during the past 10 years. Achievement usually requires overcoming challenges, and we’ve certainly had our share and continue to face them today through the pandemic. We will emerge positioned to thrive and continue transformational growth with academic excellence just as we have for the past decade.
Dr. Welch is president of the Arkansas State University System and Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.