Discussions have kicked off between Lyon College and the University of the Ozarks about the two Presbyterian-affiliated schools pooling some operations in response to an expected decline in the population of potential students, school leaders said.
“A full merger is not being considered right now,” Perry Wilson, chairman of the Lyon College board of trustees, said in a phone interview Monday. The Batesville college will continue to have its own governing board and a top administrator, he said in response to questions about the school’s independence.
A 10-person committee is being formed that will explore what the schools in a statement called “strategic partnerships” in the face of changing demographics. The University of the Ozarks is located in Clarksville, roughly 130 miles west of Batesville.
“We know the college-going population will shrink up to 15% in the next five years, creating an ever-increasingly competitive market for institutions, especially private church-related institutions,” Sherilyn Poole, chairperson of the University of the Ozarks board of trustees, said in a statement.
Such projections vary depending on the methods used and what geographic area is considered, though multiple researchers have noted a decline in birth rates after the financial crisis that took place in 2007-08.
A December report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projected that public high school graduates in Arkansas will decline from 32,361 in the 2018-19 academic year to 31,570 in 2021-22, then rise again before falling after the 2024-25 academic year. A similar trend is expected across the United States, according to the report.
Wilson said there are “headwinds” faced by private institutions leading to such discussions. He said he hopes to be part of the 10-member group set to hash out ideas such as whether “back-office type resources, accounting, administrative-type things” might be shared. Wilson said there’s no intention to eliminate jobs.
Academics will also be a part of the discussions, said Richard Dunsworth, president of the University of the Ozarks since 2013.
“Lyon College has a couple of programs that we don’t have, specifically in languages and computer science. What might it look like if we were to share faculty and we were then able to open up new programs for our students?” Dunsworth said.
At both schools, “our focus is the undergraduate student,” Dunsworth said, calling both “strong” and “stable.”
The University of the Ozarks enrolled 839 students in fall 2020, while Lyon College enrolled 659, according to data from the state Division of Higher Education.
All students are undergraduates at the two schools. Data from the state Division of Higher Education shows a general trend of decline in undergraduate enrollment across the state.
Asked about whether discussions would touch on adding graduate programs, Dunsworth said, “Those are the very kinds of conversations that we want to open up. What would it look like if we worked together on endeavors such as that?”
Despite the statewide trends, Dunsworth said the University of the Ozarks has grown its enrollment in recent years, and state data shows a growth of about 30% compared with fall 2015 when the campus had 646 students. Most of this growth has come from enrollment in science and technology-related fields, Dunsworth said.
Lyon College has seen its enrollment dip over the same time period, falling about 7% compared with fall 2015 when 710 students enrolled, according to state data.
Both are residential campuses that have been affected by the ongoing pandemic. Lyon College opted not to offer face-to-face instruction this past fall, re-opening for in-person instruction this year. The college has done a “good job of being nimble and flexible,” Wilson said, but he said it’s important to provide a residential experience.
The University of the Ozarks opened to face-to-face instruction in the fall, but saw lower numbers of students living in its residence halls, Dunsworth said.
“Normally, we operate our residential facilities close to capacity. This year, I think we had 100 -plus empty spaces,” Dunsworth said, though he added that the college worked to “de-densify the campus” and also allowed students to exit out of housing contracts if they were anxious about group living conditions during a pandemic.
“Although that’s a financial hit, students’ health and well being is more important,” Dunsworth said.
The two schools have in the past had studies done to consider partnerships, first in 1946 and 1977.
Dunsworth said modern technology and its use during the pandemic have made obsolete some of those concerns from decades ago, such as the cost of long-distance phone calls.
He said two instructors with ties to the college are currently teaching University of the Ozarks classes while based in Central America and France.
“That wouldn’t have happened a year ago,” Dunsworth said.
Should there be circumstances where it benefits students, “if [faculty] can be in Paris, France, they sure can be in Batesville, Ark., and vice versa,” Dunsworth said.
The two Presbyterian-affiliated schools have deep roots in the state. Lyon College was founded in 1872 as Arkansas College. The University of the Ozarks, which has had multiple names, began in 1834 at the Cane Hill settlement in Washington County.