EAB’s Paul Gunther hosts University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis for a wide-ranging chat about how to reach students and families who feel that a college degree is out of reach. They examine UCA’s innovative new program that creates a debt-free pathway to a college degree for all incoming Arkansas freshmen who qualify based on financial need.
They also offer tips for higher ed leaders on ways to help students overcome learning gaps and other preparation issues to help them succeed on your campus.
0:00:11.9 Paul Gunther: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we're joined by the University of Central Arkansas president, Houston Davis, who shares the motivations and the goals behind the UCA Commitment. That's a program that establishes a debt-free pathway to a college degree for all incoming Arkansas freshmen who qualify based on financial need. While last dollar programs like this aren't uncommon, what really sets this initiative apart is its scope. There may be no other university in the nation that attracts as many students with demonstrated financial need as the University of Central Arkansas. President Davis explains how his institution strengthened its own financial standing to make the UCA Commitment even possible, and he shares advice for other leaders looking to bridge the affordability gap. So give him a listen and enjoy.
0:01:12.1 PG: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Paul Gunther, and I'm Principal Strategic Lead for Research Partner Success. Today, we're going to focus on a program that was just launched at the University of Central Arkansas to create a debt-free pathway to a college degree for all students who qualify based on financial need. What sets this initiative apart is its scope, both in terms of the number of students it will impact and its holistic approach to the student experience. I'm excited to have as my guest today to talk about this program, Dr. Houston Davis, the president of the University of Central Arkansas. President Davis, welcome to the podcast.
0:01:53.5 Houston Davis: It's great to be with you, Paul. Thank you for having me.
0:01:57.3 PG: Well, President Davis, to get us started, if you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about your institution as well as the students and the communities that you serve.
0:02:05.4 HD: Well, I do love to talk about the University of Central Arkansas. UCA is a public regional comprehensive university. It's located in Conway, Arkansas, which is obviously in the central part of the state. You would probably guess that from the name. And although we get undergraduate students from, in any given year, between 40 and 45 different states and 30 plus countries, 90% of our student body still comes from the state of Arkansas. Of our 10,000 students, roughly 8,000 are undergraduates and 2000 graduate students. And in both of those populations, again, we really are serving the state of Arkansas, and we take that charge very seriously, that we're expected to wake up every day looking to make our state better.
0:02:52.5 PG: Well, so the program that you just launched at UCA is called the UCA Commitment. Could you explain briefly the impetus and the goals for the program?
0:03:00.6 HD: Certainly. One goal is to change the narrative for students and families that are beginning to wonder if higher education is out of their reach. We know that there are a lot of variables that contribute to disturbing statistics in terms of participation rates in higher education in the fall semester after high school graduation, or even within that point in two years of high school graduation. But we know that cost and then debt aversion certainly have to be leading variables. So as we were capturing what we wanted to do with UCA Commitment, in many ways, it was to change that narrative, to allow families to be able to lay aside their concerns about loan debt, their concerns about having to put a credit card on the table to be able to take care of their mandatory tuition and fees. How might we provide them a pathway to no debt in that transaction, and then make it just a value proposition about, UCA is a good fit for them and their educational goals? How could we go about making certain that we were positioning that as something that was a springboard to their success and their futures, not something that was more of a hurdle to that success?
0:04:14.0 PG: Wow. It's a pretty big undertaking, and it's a pretty big investment for the university to make. Can you talk a little bit about how you prepared to make that commitment to the communities you serve?
0:04:26.9 HD: We have. You don't launch a program like this and want that to be a flash in the pan. We built this to be long term, that we would be able to extend to Arkansas families that make $100,000 and below, if those students were admitted to university, that they would be able to have their unmet need mapped out for them through a series of scholarship and/or work/study options. You don't announce that to your public. You don't announce that to future students and families without that being something you're committed to for the long haul. So this program wasn't just born out of a flash in the pan conversation in the last year. We've been working for the last five or six years at UCA to make certain that we're maximizing all of our scholarship dollars. So we're maximizing all of our student work and work/study opportunities to be able to... Whether a student has $1000 of unmet need or they've got $5000 of unmet need, we want to be able to position opportunities for them to be able to satisfy that with either scholarship or work/study opportunity.
0:05:35.6 PG: And there's that one other piece of the program as well. You mentioned the scholarship, you mentioned work/study. There's also that service-learning component. Why was that so important to build in?
0:05:46.1 HD: Well, one of the things that we feel like is very important to an experience at UCA is service learning, one of those high impact practices that our university already is very committed to. And as we're building the UCA Commitment program, there was lots of talk about, we don't want anyone that's participating in this to not also be making a commitment, having a bit of a skin in the game. Even if those students are not going to have a work/study assignment, let's say they are just gonna be receiving an outright scholarship to be able to cover their unmet need, we felt like having volunteer service hours as a bit of a symbolic gesture toward... This opportunity came about because many people across many decades have positioned the university to be able to offer you this.
0:06:36.9 HD: That's a part of you paying it back, paying it forward, making certain that students, again, they are making a commitment to their community and making a commitment to their university. So the majority of the students in our first cohort will just have some volunteer hours that they'll have to do to remain eligible for their UCA Commitment at last dollar scholarship. Roughly a third we have built into the model will get an outright work study. And we want the work/study assignment to not just be a random assignment. We want that to be a meaningful experience whereby those students... It's not just about them getting school covered. We wanna make certain that they're getting connected. If they are, for instance, a College of Business student, wouldn't it be great to be able to do their work/study assignment inside of the College of Business and have that many more opportunities to be connected to the faculty and the staff and other students inside of their own college? So a meaningful experience is something that we continue looking toward. That's the goal with all of the placements.
0:07:36.3 PG: I can imagine just the amount of thought and planning that has had to go into this. You've got the initial focus on helping freshmen with the affordability aspect of it beginning next fall, to earn a degree without incurring any of the debt, mapping in those high-impact practices as part of it, and making sure that they can pursue those as part of their college experience at UCA as opposed to something separate. So a ton of moving pieces, and as you said, that's not a flash in the pan. That is a lot of things that have to go together. I'm sure part of those pieces coming together are the folks who work to make it possible. So I'm curious what it looked like as you were working with your board of directors and other key stakeholders to convince them that launching a program of this magnitude was not only possible but advisable.
0:08:25.9 HD: Well, I think that when I talk about UCA Commitment, I say there's a story that goes back 25 years, and there's one that's five years, and there's one that's one year ago. And the 25 is just the origins of me seeing that last dollar scholarship programs and work/study programs can make a tremendous difference. In my background in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Georgia, and then coming to Arkansas, I've seen elements of everything that we're doing. But five years ago, what I mean by that time period, I think that everybody from our board of trustees through our leadership team, our dean's council, our faculty, our staff, our individuals working in enrollment services began sounding the alarm about not being able to meet last dollar needs of students, and how we saw so many students beginning to walk away from opportunities at UCA, or we saw individuals that were in academic good standing that were stopping out, that when we reengaged with them, we found out that it was just one bad financial moment in their life that had compounded to putting them in a position where they needed to and they would use "stop out."
0:09:34.3 HD: We know that is likely dropout. And they were going to plan to come back, and lots of times, we don't see them come back to us. So really for the last five years, as we've been doing our work and our resource optimization initiative to make certain that the university's finances, we're not only sound, but that our dollars within our budget flow into priorities. And the largest priority in our strategic plan is student success. So what were we doing to be able to make dollar decisions that were following that goal of student success? Having to do something about last dollar scholarships, unmet need, had to be a centerpiece as we look to the future. If we were gonna have efficiency and effectiveness as a part of our ROI program, we were gonna have to do something about unmet need.
0:10:19.9 HD: So a year ago, I began talking with our board of trust about something that we called Moonshot. And that really grew out of a small group in June and July of 2022, getting together. And it was continuing the conversation that many of us had had across a couple cycles about concerns about the conditions for those students. And we started allowing ourselves to allow our imaginations to run free with, well, what might we do? What might be an appropriate step for the university to take in light of the resources that we have? And what do we think can make the biggest difference? And at that point, it was just thinking about being able to serve students whose families made $50,000 and below. We sort of had a Pell times two sort of mentality, and our board of trust was very supportive of that.
0:11:10.2 HD: They saw that our work to make certain... And we've been lucky to work alongside with EAB and some other partners. Are we maximizing existing aid towards serving as many students as possible? They knew that that work had accumulated to the point where we had the ability to free up dollars within the existing budget for something like this. It was only as we got into the late fall of 2022 that we began realizing that we might be able to reach out and touch even more students. And again, very fortunate the university was in the financial shape that we were. And we didn't go crazy about reaching 100,000 at that point, but we said, what if we could get that $75,000 mark? And I would say we went into the spring semester of this current year, where we thought that was gonna be possible. And things just kind of keep working toward, let's reach that March middle, let's reach those families that are two income earners, and the family doesn't have a lot of money left over at the end of each month. And we decided on setting it at 100,000. And we think that that's a healthy level for us to start at knowing that inflation alone will erode that dollar figure some as we look to the next four or five years, but $100,000 is a good starting point.
0:12:22.0 PG: Yeah. We often talk about strategic clarity and then investing in those priorities. And I think this is a fantastic example of the forethought that went into it, recognizing that you would need to do some things differently to be in a position to make a bet like this and then to be able to walk the walk, putting that investment into your number one priority around student success, is I think something that is worthy to mention how far in advance you all were planning for something like this, and then to sprint in a year to make it possible. I can only imagine the number of pieces that had to fall into place for that to occur. And I can imagine that now that the announcement has been made September 7th, now it's all about operationalizing it. And so that's a whole new endeavor to really kick off, is to make it fully real as it goes. Can you tell us a little bit about, as you make that pivot towards the operational focus, what are some of the lessons that you're learning? How are you looking at policies or processes that have been in place for some time?
0:13:26.7 HD: Yeah. One thing that I think that we picked up on very early as we were modeling this with five different cohorts, is how many students are leaving resources on the table that are already due to them, and how the element of choice to fill out the FAFSA or to fill out the Arkansas Challenge paperwork for the lottery funded program here in the state. There were a lot of students that were in our model that they just weren't claiming Pell Grant or Challenge monies that they already were eligible for. So we realized that there was this element of, we needed to find a way to take away that choice. Our requirement for UCA Commitment is that these students have to do those two things; fill out their FAFSA and fill out Arkansas Challenge. But we also realized that, why might a student not do that?
0:14:18.2 HD: Well, they probably don't because they don't have anybody in their life that's helping them with that. They're practically rudderless ships going through the ocean. So the rethinking of what we were gonna do really was to think about taking more of a case management approach as we work with students. Obviously, putting in the requirement of the required FAFSA and Arkansas Challenge, most of the students, those natural forces will take over. But us building in early alert systems to be able to say that, "Here, Paul should be a student who should have filled those things out by now. Let's reach out to Paul and let's go that extra mile to be able to do that case management approach." Paul, that's gonna bleed over into everything that we do. That sort of case management approach isn't just gonna help the UCA Commitment students here at our university.
0:15:09.6 HD: That's gonna help everyone. That's just kind of making that more of a priority. It's a service mentality. And I'm really proud how everyone's rallied to the concept of much of what we're gonna do for these students is not really gonna be us repurposing our dollars, but repurposing our time and our commitment to them, to make certain to do that case management. The other certainly thing that we've learned is that it's one thing to just assume that you can roll out a program and individuals are gonna participate. There's skepticism anytime you put something new out there. First of all, just within our university, every time we introduced the concept before we got up to our public announcement of it, the first reaction was, "What? Tell me again. How?" That, lather, rinse, repeat was the conversation over and over and over again and is still in many ways as we're asking people to come to the table to do the work on the project. We still have to allow them that thought process.
0:16:08.4 HD: But with external, dealing with families, dealing with guidance counselors, dealing with others, there's a lot of, "What? What? How?" that we do with them as well. And finding a way to be able to bridge that skepticism, because we have certainly learned in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. We have tried to make certain that we message this UCA Commitment program. It's not just a gift that's handed out. We chose "commitment" to be in the title for a reason. The university is taking certain steps. We need students and their support network, and if we need to be that support network, to join us in making the commitment to the program. But we do fear, what about those individuals that pass by this opportunity because they think it's too good to be true?
0:16:58.0 PG: Yeah. Both of those elements, that case element approach and then the messaging and the social proof necessary for it all to work, that is a lot of hard work by a lot of people who must care very deeply about UCA's mission and its students. So congratulations to you and to your team for all of the hard work that's already taken place and the commitment to making it possible moving forward. So I know when you put in that kind of hard work, there's certain expectations. There's things you wanna see to come about from it. And curious about that in a couple of different angles. I think one out of the gate is that enrollment piece. What are you thinking you're gonna see in terms of some of the enrollments and the total number of students you expect to participate in UCA Commitment over the next couple of years?
0:17:40.1 HD: I mentioned earlier that we've being able to model our program against five cohorts. It's been very informative to know where our likely eligibility would be and then even thinking about where participation might be. All those past cohorts, it's roughly 40 to 43% of our incoming undergraduate students, first-time freshmen, would've been eligible for the UCA Commitment Program. We have modeled out... And to kind of level set for folks that are listening, our incoming freshman classes, they've been remarkably stable over the last few years, and that's been a great thing nationally, compared to what some other schools are seeing. But we get about 1800 students every year, and again, very proud. That incoming class, second largest in the state of Arkansas, public or private, and generally second best academic prepared, and that usually riding behind the flagship on those statistics. We expect that this program will yield some additional students in our incoming cohort in the fall of ‘24. As mentioned earlier, we wonder about the students that might think, "Well, that's too good to be true." We know that by fall of '25, we will have proven with our incoming cohort that, wow, that thing at UCA really is making a huge difference for that freshman class.
0:19:03.3 HD: We don't think with our juniors in high school right now, that we'll be having that fight or having that concern in years to come. But that 1800 figure, as we look to model what might be the impact, we think this could probably yield another 100, 125 students in that incoming class that fall, perhaps as many as 150 to 200 in out years. That would be pretty significant. But the real gains that are gonna come from UCA Commitment aren't going to necessarily be in additional new students, because the enrollment cliff is still the enrollment cliff, and we're not changing our admission standards. What it's gonna change is really those retention rates. I mentioned earlier, those students that are in academic good standing, making great progress toward a degree, and their primary if not only reason for stopping out is finances. We feel like the real gains are gonna come from retention of students through their graduation. And as we've modeled this in the past years, we see that for every one student that we might gain that's a new student, we think we're gonna gain two students to retention. So I've told everyone that I think UCA Commitment is more of a retention initiative than it is a recruitment initiative, although it certainly is gonna help on recruitment.
0:20:23.6 HD: And we do want to change that narrative for Arkansas families. We want them to see college as something that if they're academically prepared for and UCA is a good fit, there should be no reason that debt aversion should be the reason for not coming to meet with us about finding a place in our UCA family. But this is really gonna be about retaining our students and making certain that we're bridging those real hard financial realities that all of our families deal with. We know that a lot of our students, well, a lot of them are first generation, a lot of them are Pell eligible. Many, many of them show up. They've got a plan for how they're gonna pay for their first or second semester, but there is really no plan for how they're gonna pay for years two, three, and four. UCA Commitment is going to move the needle on that factor.
0:21:12.1 PG: One of the things that stands out to me about that is you're really letting folks know, "We have a plan for you." As you said, you may have a plan for your first semester, your first two semesters, but that message of, "We have a plan for your whole four years here," I think is really powerful, especially as you combat some of that skepticism that you mentioned. That's gonna be a big piece of it. And so there's expectations, as you mentioned, for the enrollment as well as the retention piece. But what about some of the other components? I think about economic development. I can imagine that with both the service and the work/study components, those are going to enhance partnerships with businesses and community partners. So what role do you expect UCA and specifically UCA Commitment to play in boosting the Arkansas economy over the long term?
0:21:54.8 HD: Well, we saw just really a great reaction to our announcement on September 7th of UCA commitment, was our local Chamber of Commerce and Chambers of Commerce in the area being really excited about pushing this out to their major employers. Our Chamber of Commerce called it "An absolute game changer," because they see it as not only something that's gonna help existing employers with their employee base, because many of their families will be eligible for this, but what a great recruitment tool as we're looking to recruit business and industry to the Little Rock North, Little Rock and Conway metro area, for us to be able to say that this university that's gonna be in your backyard has this special program available, and many of your employees, immediately they're graduates of the high schools, will be eligible for that from the outset.
0:22:53.2 HD: We know that I mentioned earlier about the declining participation rate, and that's something that I know all 50 states are concerned about. In Arkansas, the percent of recent high school graduates that have attended any post-secondary, not just universities, community colleges, but even the vocational centers in the semester fall of high school graduation has gone from 52% down to 41%, just in a decade period of time. And that's coming off a decade where there were a lot of movements to try and get more and more students to go to school and get our graduation rates up. We think that UCA Commitment is an example of a program. It's not just providing leadership here in Arkansas, but we think nationally, for schools and states that are looking to reverse that trend, or at the very least, flatten that line. We're not going to turn that around on our own for the state of Arkansas. But, if we can do anything to begin reversing course to get that 41, 42% back going in a positive direction, we desperately need to get back above 50%. We really, as was the goal a few years ago, to get that to 60%, we've got a long ways to go. But UCA's gonna do our part to try and lead the way for the state.
0:24:17.8 PG: Well, and EAB will be watching closely. That's a trend we've been tracking as well. We call it non-consumption and finding those examples for, how do you buck that trend where we do see high school graduation rates increasing, but participation in the college-going rate decreasing? And I think this will be a great example that hopefully we'll be able to highlight as one of those case studies in just a short period of time. I wanna move to advice. I wanna start with advice for current high school students and then maybe some advice for higher ed leaders. But I'd love to start, and you mentioned this a little bit already, but what advice do you have for a young person who might be in high school today and they're weighing their options about what to do after they graduate?
0:25:01.3 HD: Well, the number one thing is that we want them to know if they're academically prepared and they've got the goal to get their college degree, they absolutely positively can know that they can be in conversation with UCA about the fit with our university. But one thing, Paul, that we have already seen, and it was something that we feared, we talked a lot about this as we were modeling this over the last year. There are so many seniors, by the time a student gets to that point, if they've given up on the dream of college, it's almost like a light that's flickered out. And they may well have... That light may have flickered out two and three years prior. Your high school teachers and counselors talk about, you can just almost see that flicker out with students. And they may do what they have to do to get their high school degree, but they have just gone ahead and put out of their mind that a college degree is ever in their future.
0:25:55.9 HD: There's a bit of a strategy for, what are we doing with high school counselors and what are we doing to try and reach those students with special messaging to... If we can get them back on that trajectory, to think that college is in their future? We may well have some preparedness issues that we will need to address in that first year. So, it goes from being an enrollment services and an access initiative that's about entering and then retaining, to us accepting the fact that we may have some preparation issues with students that, again, financial barriers were the only reason they weren't thinking about college. It's not that they can't do, it's just that they... Again, that light burned out a long time ago. The other part to that is, a lot of our messaging as we're working with the high schools, working with counselors, working with... You begin in the college fair and the recruitment process, some relationship with students in that freshman and sophomore year of high school.
0:26:54.0 HD: Well, we think we're talking to them before that light is burned out. We think that we are going to be able to have a dialogue with them that allows them to have hope and energy and enthusiasm about what their future... Maybe they had started hearing in the back of their mind from whatever their support network is that, "Well, college, we may not be able to do that for you." Well, they can say, "Well, you know what? UCA, they've got that program. If I can just find a way to make my grades, if I can find a way to hit all my marks, I know that I've got a future there." And that's where we want that dialogue, because the aspirations have a lot to do with participation later on. And if aspirations have been shut down, deflated, that's something that we're gonna have to overcome.
0:27:45.5 HD: And again, I love that UCA Commitment is gonna have some long tails on our success. I think about the excitement that we're gonna have when our first graduate walks across the stage at the Farris Center and I can shake their hand knowing they're our first UCA Commitment graduate. That's gonna be a great day, Paul. That's gonna be wonderful. But I'll also love that if we'll work this for the next two to three years, we may shape those aspirations and those post-secondary goals for some of those students that heretofore, again, the light might have burned out early on in their high school experience. Again, that's the kind of work that you can get excited about. That's the kind of work that... My grandmother talked about good pride, bad pride. That's good pride, being a part of... And we've got a lot of people that they see that that's the long game, is changing that narrative and changing that trajectory for individuals as well as in the aggregate, looking at that data that we talked about earlier.
0:28:47.4 PG: At EAB, we often talk about envisioning what that future will look like. And I love how tangible that vision is of shaking hands with that first UCA Commitment student to cross the stage as something to look forward to and something to aspire to. It makes it very real.
0:29:02.8 HD: Yeah, I think that's like hitting a hole-in-one in golf. I may just walk out of the room at that moment. I'm done. That'll be the highlight of my career.
0:29:10.5 PG: I wouldn't know the feeling. I've been playing golf for years. I still haven't had that hole-in-one moment, but I keep hoping. [chuckle] President Davis, I wanna be respectful of your time, but before we go, I'd also love to get your advice for other higher ed leaders who may be thinking about ways to help close the funding gap and that long tail of success that you mentioned, because as you mentioned, it's not just about making it more accessible or more affordable. It's about that success along the way. What advice do you have for other higher ed leaders on that?
0:29:39.3 HD: Yeah, I think that... I joke, but I'm serious about higher education, meaningful work, you're cooking with Crockpots, not with microwaves. We are very proud of the fact, as we've imagined and launched UCA Commitment, it's been with multiple years of budget and scholarship and budget distribution decisions that have been toward this day of making this possible. I probably frustrated our enrollment services team over my first six years by not falling victim to the, "Let's just throw as much scholarship money at the wall as possible, and see if we can goose up our incoming freshman class." I know from my past governance roles in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia, that those are usually short-term sugar highs that get institutions really good headlines in August and September for an incoming freshman class. But their chief budget officers are wincing in the corner because they know what that did to one-time reserves.
0:30:45.3 HD: We have programmed all of UCA Commitment to be about, how are we utilizing our existing scholarship plans? How are we utilizing our existing... Again, in the base budget, student worker and work/study positions? How are we freeing up other dollars within the broader university budget for the same? ROI has been about, how can we best position our resources to be able to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff possible, but it's also been about, how can we position ourselves to better serve our students and their student success goals by being able to address these unmet needs? I would tell anybody that is looking to try and replicate what we're doing with UCA Commitment that you've gotta do that hard work or else you will spend yourself into a debt spiral and your board of trust or your board of regents will catch up to your strategies eventually.
0:31:41.0 HD: I see too many schools that are spending themselves just looking at one-year and two-year goals, not thinking about, what's the impact of that gonna be over the next five to 10 years? So I think it was a lot easier to launch a program of this type knowing that we're five years into... Really six years, but five years into very open dialogue with our campus about the goals of ROI and how all of that accrues toward student success, the retention of faculty and staff, making certain to position the university to thrive in an era of uncertainty for a lot of other universities. So I think doing the hard work, again, it's Crockpots, not microwaves. And I'm very proud to be able to put a program in place that we've not just built it for one or two cycles and then see how that's gonna work, we've modeled the thing out for eight or nine years. We look forward to having maturity of cohorts in this and seeing what that can do to retention rates.
0:32:38.4 PG: President Davis, thank you for your time today and thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your story. EAB has been privileged to work alongside you and your team on a number of the different components for this initiative. And we were there to cheer you all on on September 7th, 'cause we're just so excited to be a part of what you all have set out to create and the impact that it'll have for your students and for your communities. Hopefully it'll be okay, but we'd love to come and have you back on the program maybe next fall and give us an update on how things are going at UCA and with UCA Commitment.
0:33:10.9 HD: I would love to. As much fun as this is to talk about now, the real energy is gonna come once we have those students enrolled in fall of '24, and start seeing... That's a life-changing proposition there. And again, what better work to be involved in than what we're doing in higher education? I'm proud to be here and I'm proud to do what I do.
0:33:32.1 PG: Well, thank you again for joining us today on Office Hours with EAB.
0:33:35.0 HD: Thank you.
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