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Ever since the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, the image of public education in Arkansas in the national consciousness has ... not been one associated with progressive best-practices, but Arkansas public schools did turn out a president and a number of world class artists and scientists. Today, though, the state ranks near the bottom of most indexes of student achievement.

Central Arkansas's Two Biggest Universities Find Enrollment Heading In Different Directions

UCA announced freshman enrollment is over 2,000 students this fall, bringing total enrollment to 11,177. Meanwhile, the UA Little Rock’s fall enrollment has dropped more than a thousand students, to about 10,500. ";

The real "I-40 showdown" between the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas is for students not student-athletes or fanbases.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's press conference last month featured representatives of both universities (separated by about 30 miles along Interstate 40) announcing the scheduling of a battery of athletic contests between the small NCAA Division I athletic programs.

"I mean in-state competition makes sense," said UCA athletic director Brad Teague. "Why not? Why wouldn't we want to do this? It's big time. It's a big-time announcement.” 

Since then, UCA announced freshman enrollment is over 2,000 students for the first time since the fall of 2015, bringing total enrollment to 11,177, according to Courtney Bryant, director of admissions. (It's high-water mark is 11,754, set in 2015.)

Meanwhile, the UA Little Rock this week fielded questions from media and faculty about why its enrollment has dropped more than a thousand students, to about 10,500.

The expected loss in tuition and fees has forced a hiring freeze at UA Little Rock, and budget cuts such as suspended staff "nonessential" travel reimbursements.

From fall 2009 through 2011, enrollment topped 13,000.

"As a metropolitan university that serves a large population of transfer and non-traditional students, UA Little Rock has historically experienced a decline in enrollment when the job market is strong," Chancellor Andrew Rogerson told faculty and staff by email this week. "The economy is strong and has undoubtedly contributed to our current enrollment decline."

LeQuieta Grayson directs guidance counselors for the Little Rock School District, and she has a daughter attending Henderson State University. Part of the appeal for Little Rock students of a school such as Henderson State or UCA is its proximal distance to the urban center of the city.

"I think they want to not be so close to home. … Wanting to go somewhere else and not being able to get home in two or three minutes."

Such universities sidestep what UCA admissions director Courtney Bryant calls, 13th grade.

"Every high school student has this idea of going away to college, and being out on their own, and being excited about that. So whether it's UCA, UA Little Rock or Arkansas Tech or ASU, I think all of the local students, there's going to be some of that, 'Well, I don't want this to be 13th grade.'"

The school's success attracting interest in Central Arkansas and around the state, she says, is a credit to shoe-leather recruiting.

"We've been more aggressive as far as visiting our schools, especially our local schools. We know that we are a great option for a lot of the local students, so we’re trying to build the connections with them as well as the high school counselors."

UA Little Rock officials say the drop in enrollment is in high school students who had been getting UA Little Rock college credit for classes they're taking inside their schools.

In other words, they are not on campus.

Nonetheless, the expected loss in tuition and fees has forced a hiring freeze and budget cuts such as suspended staff "nonessential" travel reimbursements.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.