7. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
No organization will survive long without adjusting to the patterns of change found in the larger world outside. Some changes help and some hinder. When developing a long-range plan, corporate managers and public managers have often sought to understand an organization’s potential within its changing environment by engaging in an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—often abbreviated as a “SWOT” analysis—because such an approach can be informative and provide perspective.
This chapter will report key points from such an analysis for this university. It is in no sense exhaustive, nor will it in most instances take time to point out the variety of nuanced ways in which a particular factor may simultaneously be both a strength and weakness or both a threat and an opportunity. Yet it will be instructive to note a short list in each of the four categories. In each instance the implied comparison is with present or potential competitors.
Strengths cited are institutional characteristics that are broader than specific programs or offices or individuals. Presumably they would endure even if strong programs or offices were eliminated or if outstanding individuals left the university. No ranking is intended by the order of the list.
State Funding. In its last year as the private Little Rock University in 1968-1969, the institution received zero dollars in state appropriation. In 1969-1970, the first year as the public University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the institution received $1 million state dollars. In 2004-2005, UALR received $53 million from the state. Assuming a 5 percent annual yield, an endowment large enough to provide that level of annual funding would exceed $1 billion dollars.
University of Arkansas System. Being a campus in the University of Arkansas System confers prestige within the state. Being part of a recognized and dominant state university system also communicates that a young university is in the mainstream of American higher education and thus gives credibility across the nation and beyond.
Faculty. A few minutes spent browsing through the listing of faculty and their credentials in one of the university’s catalogs will show a remarkable collection of talent, covering virtually all academic fields from A to Z and holding terminal degrees from many of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. Seventy-eight percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty have earned a Ph.D. or other terminal degree. The campus thus offers a remarkably fertile intellectual climate for its students and a remarkable collection of intellectual capital for the community and the state.
Academic Breadth. UALR is comprehensive, offering major programs of study across the full range of academic disciplines. It awards degrees from the associate through the PhD. Therefore, the university is capable of responding to the individual higher education needs of a great variety of people. ( Table 3-1 in Chapter 3 provided an overview of formal programs of study offered by the university.)
Undergraduate Core Curriculum. UALR provides all its undergraduate students the advantages of a broad core curriculum, consistent with the requirement of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools that accredited institutions include a significant general education component in baccalaureate degree programs. The core curriculum, reviewed and updated from time to time, instills a broad foundation of knowledge and skills equipping individuals to manage their lives in today’s complex civilization and to be flexible in the face of changes in the future.
Convenient Class Schedule. Juggling college attendance, job, and family obligations is a constant challenge for many UALR students. Therefore, in addition to the traditional day-time class periods, the campus has for decades offered classes during the late afternoon and evenings to fit the daily routines of students. Twenty-five percent of all UALR’s semester credit hours are generated after 4:30 p.m., with the latest evening classes adjourning at 9:15 p.m. Almost 1,000 students are enrolled in weekend courses. Classes are also offered at a number of convenient off-campus sites around the twin cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock. In the fall semester of 2005, 487 students were enrolled at the UALR Benton Center. This approach to scheduling is typical of metropolitan universities as they meet the varied needs of the clientele of an urban area.
Outreach Units. UALR has a number of first-rate outreach units that are vehicles for extending university expertise and services to people in the immediate community and throughout Arkansas. Here is a list of most of the major ones, with names that in most instances give a sense of their purpose: Community School of the Arts, Intensive English Language Program, Institute for Economic Advancement, Arkansas Small Business Development Center, Advanced Placement Summer Institute, Summer Laureate-University for Youth, Virtual Reality Center, an innovative and cutting-edge interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Bioinformatics, MidSOUTH Center (alcohol abuse, addiction, and child welfare), Prescription Assistance Line for Seniors, Mediation Clinic of the Bowen School of Law, Office of Community Engagement, Speech and Hearing Clinic, Institute of Government, Arkansas Public Administration Consortium (with UAF and ASU), UALR Children International, KUAR-KLRE. (Chapter 3 presented more information on these outreach units and other public service activities.)
Campus Diversity. At a time when demographers project that in 45 years the United States will have a population that will be 50 percent white and 50 percent people of color, with Latinos and African Americans constituting the second and third largest groups UALR leads all universities in Arkansas in the diversity of its student body, with one in three students being non-white. African Americans make up 29 percent of all students, followed by Hispanics at two percent and the balance representing other nationalities from around the world. UALR plays a dominant role at the graduate level for the state’s minority population. During the five years 2000-2004, UALR awarded 404 graduate degrees to African Americans, leading all Arkansas four-year campuses in this statistic. (See Table 3-3 in Chapter 3.)
Technology. In the late 1990’s, UALR moved to the forefront in technology among Arkansas institutions of higher education. This institution was the first to offer students on-line class schedules, on-line registration, on-line student aid applications, and a wireless network on campus. UALR provided leadership in bringing Internet2 to the state, boasts a Virtual Reality Center, and in 1999 launched the CyberCollege—the Donaghey College of Information Science and Systems Engineering—with programs of study that prepare students to work at the forefront of the knowledge-based economy. One striking piece of evidence of UALR’s incorporation of technology into the instructional program is the dominant record of UALR faculty in offering on-line courses, as shown in Figure 7-1.
Grant and Contract Funding. UALR faculty and staff have achieved considerable success in increasing resources through successful submission of proposals for grant or contract funding—exceeding $20 million per year over the last four years. (See Figure 3-4 in Chapter 3.) Among 15 peer institutions, UALR is third in total dollars and second when calculated on a per full-time faculty member basis. (See Figure 4-1 and Figure 4-2 in Chapter 4.)
Service to Transfer Students. UALR has a singular role among public universities in Arkansas in serving transfer students, 1,151 of whom entered UALR in fall 2004. Each year UALR admits more transfer students as a percentage of undergraduate enrollment than any other Arkansas four-year campus. The significance of this service for the state cannot be overstated, given the state’s compelling interest in seeing a higher percentage of the Arkansas population hold at least a bachelor’s degree.
No four-year university in Arkansas, except UALR, consistently graduates more students than it admitted four years earlier as first-time full-time freshmen, the baseline for determining retention and graduation rates. But UALR does it consistently. (Figure 3-2 and Figure 3-3 in Chapter 3 depicts this difference between UALR and other campuses.)
State Funding. As noted in the preceding section, state funding is a strength when put in the perspective of the size of the endowment that would be required to provide funding equal to the annual state appropriation. However, when compared with the funding levels that other state governments provide their public universities, the level of state support for UALR is a weakness. With UALR funded at only 78.4 percent of the average of universities across the country with a similar set of programs, it is difficult for UALR to pay competitive salaries, provide a competitive number of scholarships, keep abreast of technology, adequately fund the library, maintain buildings, etc. (See the discussion of the new state funding formula for higher education in Chapter 5.)
Assets for Recruiting Recent High School Graduates. Recent high school graduates are often eager to step into adulthood by getting away from home when enrolling in college. Recent high school graduates leaving home for the first time, and especially their parents, often desire the convenience and sense of security that goes with living in university student housing on campus. As a commuter campus, UALR throughout its history has not been well-positioned to compete for the best entering freshmen against institutions with abundant student housing and long traditions of student life on campus. UALR’s second residence hall project, now under construction, will raise the student population housed on campus to 632. A related weakness is the limited supply of private scholarships to attract entering freshmen and then retain them in subsequent years of study. Most UALR students, some 13,900 of them each year, receive financial aid (federal and state grants and loans and institutional academic scholarships) totaling $84,447,468 but only 2.2 percent of these awards (305 awards totaling $440,000) are privately funded scholarships.
College-Readiness of Entering Freshmen. The average composite ACT score for UALR’s entering freshmen has hovered around 19, a score that reflects a minimum admission threshold. Figure 7-2 compares the remediation profile of UALR’s entering freshmen with the cumulative profile of all four-year institutions in Arkansas, showing that this institution receives and works with a large number of students who start some distance behind the college-ready starting line.
Graduation Rate. Of first-time full-time entering freshmen at UALR in the fall of 1998, six years later 25.5 percent of them had graduated. At an institution with substantial part-time enrollment and an average course load of 10.2 credit hours per semester, it is to be expected that a lower percentage of students will graduate in six years as compared with more traditional campuses with much higher percentages of full-time students. This is one basis for a complaint that the standard measure of retention and graduation used by state and federal officials does not fit urban institutions serving many nontraditional part-time students and transfer students. However, UALR does not compare well even with its peer group. Figure 4-3 in Chapter 4 shows UALR ranking 14th out of 15 metropolitan institutions in its six-year graduation rate.
Absence of Well-Based and Accepted Academic Outcome Measures. This weakness is not unique to UALR. It is a weakness shared with all institutions of higher education, one that a variety of national accrediting associations have been endeavoring to address through “assessment” standards or criteria—requirements that faculty measure learning outcomes of enrolled students. Measuring the impact of instruction and prescribed educational experiences in the total learning by students is often difficult to do directly. Therefore, indirect measures and proxies are required. Retention rates and graduation rates are examples that are popular. These measures reflect well on institutions that can enroll greater percentages of students with high incomes and high test scores, but they are not necessarily good indicators of an institution’s performance in contributing to a student’s academic success. But the fact remains that legislators and other public officials want evidence, not unreasonably, that institutions of higher education are doing a good job in their instructional programs. In light of the substantial public funding they are asked to provide, this demand by legislators and others is not likely to go away. It is a public accountability issue.
Limited Alumni and Development Programs. Although the alumni office and the development office have both done well with the resources available, the fact is that institutional investment in them has been limited. Accordingly, their activities and successes have also been limited—as measured by frequency of contacts with alumni, number of participants in alumni activities, and the number of donors and levels of donations in the annual giving programs.
Is something a strength or an opportunity? Is it a weakness or a threat? Persons involved in strategic planning—at least of the academic variety—will often debate these two questions and reasonably come to different conclusions. Location, for example, is clearly a great advantage for UALR and might be defined as a strength. But it is an advantage not of the university’s own making, so here it is viewed, on balance, as an opportunity.
Location. UALR has a singular advantage among universities in Arkansas in its location in the capital city and geographic center of the state. The Greater Little Rock metropolitan area is the center of (1) population; (2) government (with not only state government but also a major federal presence plus the governments of the largest county, city, and other sizable local governments); (3) medicine and health care; (4) finance and business; (5) transportation (with intersections of major interstate highways, a port on the Arkansas River, and a national airport); (6) communications; (7) cultural organizations. The metropolitan area also includes (8) a zoo; (9) a large variety of non-profit organizations including Winrock International and Heifer International; and (10) a presidential library.
- Location gives UALR numerous opportunities to make higher education available to recent high school graduates and also to many older, place-bound citizens and to the members of the large professional communities that are concentrated in central Arkansas. The availability of jobs in an urban area draws numerous students, both undergraduate and graduate, to academic programs at UALR. Many persons attracted to the urban area for jobs or other reasons bring with them uncompleted education plans, which is one reason UALR enrolls a large number of transfer students.
- Location gives UALR numerous opportunities to leverage its resources and enrich the curriculum and provide students with learning experiences through partnerships with government offices, courts, law firms, non-profit organizations, businesses, and others.
- Location gives UALR numerous opportunities to develop joint programs with two other public institutions of higher education, UAMS and Pulaski Technical College; with the UA Clinton School of Public Service; with three of the state’s largest school districts; and with a private, historically black institution, Philander Smith College.
The reality is that UALR is located in a great place for building a powerhouse university. The Greater Little Rock area offers opportunities galore, in number and depth, unmatched elsewhere in the state.
Changing Demographics. During the last decade the Latino population has grown rapidly in central Arkansas and the state, which offers UALR a significant opportunity. With its record of welcoming minority students, UALR could become the campus of choice for this growing segment of the state’s population.
Two-Year Colleges. Since 1991 there has been a substantial increase in the number of two-year colleges and the number of students enrolled on two-year campuses. Today there are 22 public two-year institutions which in 2004 enrolled 68,980 students (compared to 92,052 in 11 four-year universities). These campuses should be sources of additional transfer students for UALR. There are other areas in which partnerships could be mutually advantageous to UALR and one or more of the two-year colleges.
Pulaski Technical College, because it is nearby, offers extensive opportunities for mutually beneficial relationships. A partnership should make it possible for UALR to raise admission standards and route some minimally-prepared freshmen first to Pulaski Technical College. In the game of life there are many people with undistinguished ACT and SAT scores who later excel and reach the top. By virtue of location and mission, UALR has historically played a very important role in opening the door to a university education to such people. Nonetheless, a clearer division of labor between UALR and Pulaski Technical College would make sense.
Percentage of Arkansans with College Degrees. Figure 7-3 shows the percentage of persons in Arkansans, 1960 through 2000, who earned bachelor’s or higher degrees (16.7 percent), compared to national figures (24.4 percent). Arkansas ranks 49th among the 50 states on this measure, and if anything the trend lines show a slowly widening gap between national averages and Arkansas. For the people of Arkansas this trend is not a sign of good things to come in an economy demanding a competitive, well-trained workforce and the leadership to go with it.
State Workforce Priorities. UALR has an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to offer or expand programs of study that respond to state workforce priorities as determined by state officials. The best way to determine state workforce priorities is to follow the money—the state student assistance money. (Table 7-1 provides an overview of state scholarship and student loan forgiveness programs.)
The largest state scholarship program in Arkansas is the Academic Challenge Scholarship for high school graduates which is aimed at encouraging high school graduates to enroll and remain in college. This program serves the broad goal of increasing the state’s college attendance and graduation rates. Students meeting the academic and family income requirements are eligible regardless of field of study. Two companion programs based only on academic achievement—Governor’s Scholars and Distinguished Governor’s Scholars—are aimed at preventing a “brain drain” by keeping the state’s best and brightest high school graduates in state.
A more recent program—the Workforce Improvement Grant—is aimed at increasing college participation by offering financial assistance to nontraditional students—24-years or older—who may enroll part-time.
There are additional, smaller state scholarship programs and student loan forgiveness programs that target present or anticipated shortages of teachers in specified subjects, minority teachers, and nurses. UALR already offers programs of study in the identified teaching fields and in nursing.
The Arkansas Technical Careers Student Loan Forgiveness Program targets students who complete degrees that prepare graduates to work in high technology business fields including advanced manufacturing, computer/information technology, and biomedical/biotechnology. The following UALR programs are on the state roster of approved programs eligible for the Arkansas Technical Careers Student Loan Forgiveness Program: systems engineering, molecular biotechnology, information technology, computer science, computer programming, computer information systems, computer engineering technology, and electronics engineering technology.
It requires little imagination to draw up an extensive list of potential developments that might adversely affect an organization’s well-being or survival at some point in the future. The focus here is not on the hypothetical but on threats that would be classified as present and active or near-term.
Increased Competition for Students. The expansion in the number of two-year campuses in Arkansas in the 1990’s brought new students into higher education while the four-year enrollment in the state also increased. Most of the new two-year institutions were located in small towns and had little adverse impact on the enrollment of specific four-year campuses. A few of the two-year colleges, however, were located in the same community as one of the existing four-year institutions and did cause enrollment declines in the latter institutions, which are often assumed to offer courses that are both more rigorous and more expensive.
In 1991 Pulaski Vocational-Technical School became Pulaski Technical College. With the guidance of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and assistance from UALR, Pulaski Tech began offering freshman and sophomore credit courses and secured accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Pulaski Tech thus began a rapid growth in enrollment which contributed to a corresponding decline in enrollment at UALR. In 1992 Pulaski Tech enrolled 850 students. In 2004 it enrolled 7,222 students. (See Figure 7-4 which shows the enrollment trend lines.) At the lowest point of its enrollment downturn in the 1990’s, UALR lost approximately 15 percent of its total undergraduate semester credit hours.
UALR officials anticipated from the beginning that Pulaski Tech would have a negative impact on UALR enrollment but have, nonetheless, been supportive of the growth and development of Pulaski Tech, believing the presence of a sizable and strong two-year college here to be good for the community and the state. The rub is that the model for funding universities, whether public or private, assumes a pyramid with large enrollments in freshmen and sophomore courses at the base of the pyramid, making it possible to offer the more expensive and lower-enrolled courses at the junior and senior and graduate levels, which require more highly-credentialed faculty.
UALR can expect to receive an increasing number of transfer students from Pulaski Tech as it grows, and officials of the two campuses have been developing cooperative relationships to this end. (This is a case in which a threat can also be defined as an opportunity.) The number of students transferring from Pulaski Tech to UALR rose from 164 to 250 from 2000 to 2005, and this is encouraging. (See Figure 7-5.) However, it will be many years, if ever, before the number of transfer students from Pulaski Tech equals the number of qualified students lost to Pulaski Tech at the freshman and sophomore levels.
UALR’s challenge in recruiting freshmen has been compounded by the fact that other four-year universities in the state have expanded their institutional scholarship budgets and have stepped up their advertising and other recruitment efforts in the Little Rock area; and a number of for-profit universities based out of state have begun to offer classes in Little Rock.
Neighborhood in Slow Decline. Between 1960 and 2000, population in the area of the city within an approximate 20-block radius of UALR has declined by 29 percent. (See Table 7-2 which shows the decade-by-decade changes.) Loss of population is a signal of social distress. It is often accompanied by deterioration in housing stock, parks, streets, schools, and retail businesses. Although it would be easy to exaggerate the decline in the university’s neighborhood, decline is a reality. One can say, at minimum, that a neighborhood that appears unhealthy and is unattractive makes it harder to recruit and retain students, faculty, and staff.
Selected Planning Implications
The university’s planning environment is always complex and always changing. In order to serve the public interest to the fullest extent, faculty and administrators must be mindful of opportunities and threats while understanding the institution’s strengths and weaknesses. (Table 7-3)
Here are planning implications of the foregoing report of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats:
- Each strength must be protected and built upon.
- The university needs to redouble its efforts to improve student retention and
graduation rates—because of the state interest in more four-year college graduates
and because a comparison with peer institutions suggests this institution should do
- The university should redouble its own efforts and also work with other universities
to develop well-based measures of learning outcomes.
- The university should increase the number of student scholarships and honors
courses and programs in order to attract larger numbers of well-prepared entering
- The university should focus more attention on opening the door of higher
education to Latino students.
- The university should expand cooperative relationships with Pulaski Technical
College to enable both to be more successful in meeting the needs of students and
- The university should recognize and pursue a university interest in the
revitalization of the area of the city around the campus.