The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith is a substantial academic and economic powerhouse in its region, supporting an estimated $142.7 million economic impact to Sebastian County in 2019, according to an independent study released today.
The university, which contributes more than 1,400 jobs and $55.4 million in labor income to the regional economy, enrolls nearly 6,500 students annually across its academic programs, ranging from two newly instated master’s degree programs to a wide range of bachelor’s, associate, and certificate programs.
The study, conducted by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute, also found UAFS significantly impacts its graduates' financial future, whose earnings rise markedly after obtaining a credential of any kind. UAFS students who graduated in 2019 exceeded $24 million in additional wages in one year than those who obtained a high school diploma. Those same graduates could also see an increase in lifetime earnings that exceeds $373 million thanks to their academic credentials, according to the study.
“As a regional public institution, our university is uniquely interwoven with this community. The impact we make through education, research, employment, and investment reaches far beyond our campus’s two-mile footprint. Service to those who learn at work at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith is truly service to the entire River Valley, and indeed the state of Arkansas as a whole,” said Dr. Terisa Riley, Chancellor of UAFS. “Nearly half of our student body is from Sebastian County, and a large number of those students find fulfilling careers right here in Fort Smith when they graduate.”
“Though we know, anecdotally, that UAFS is a university for the people, and though we see the impact our students make on this community, and this community on our students every day, having that notion quantified by an independent study is deeply rewarding,” Riley continued. “I am immensely proud of the economic impact this institution has on Sebastian County and thrilled to present these results as a fulfillment of our promises to those who invest in our great university.”
As an institution of higher learning, the university’s mission is to provide access and opportunity through education, with the value of its credentials representing a critical indicator of success.
During the 2018–2019 academic year, more than one-third of students attending UAFS hailed from Sebastian County, with many remaining in the region post-graduation.
As illustrated on page 9 of the study, graduates with a bachelor’s degree were able to earn 2.5 times the income of a similarly-situated worker with only a high school diploma during their first year of employment. Earnings for a graduate with a master’s degree were nearly five times those of high school graduates in their first year of employment.
For the 821 recipients of a bachelor’s degree in 2018–2019, the total one-year return amounted to nearly $16 million. For all degree- or certificate-recipients, the total is over $24 million.
The UAFS mission is enhanced by a wide variety of innovative and effective public outreach programs that strengthen local business and industry, providing to area students the skills to succeed in the workforce and enhancing the skills of the current labor force.
Courses offered through the College of Applied Science and Technology are designed to sync seamlessly with the needs of regional industry, ranging from innovative apprentice programs in robotics to state-funded programs that support stable, high-paying careers in manufacturing. Similarly, the College of Health Sciences works with regional healthcare providers to ensure that UAFS graduates will be expertly prepared and meet the field’s growing needs. Across the university’s five colleges, faculty, staff, and administrators regularly convene with the employers who will eventually hire their students, ensuring that graduates from UAFS are trained to perform at the highest levels in their fields of study, educated on the needs of the nation and the region, and skilled to enter the local workforce the day they receive their degree.
Additionally, the university serves hundreds of regional high school students each year through concurrent programs and the Western Arkansas Technical Center (WATC). Sponsored by UAFS, WATC offers a skills-based curriculum that has served over 10,000 students since its opening in 1998. In many WATC programs, students can earn professional certificates, licensures, and even complete an associate degree while still in high school, earning those credential at no cost to their families.
In non-credit education, the university’s Center for Business and Professional Development conducts programs, training, and workshops with nearly 2,000 workplace employees and 100 different area businesses in the community each year, providing valuable access to technical and academic expertise. The Family Enterprise Center provides services to family-owned businesses, hosting speakers, offering consulting services, and engaging the region's small business owners in professional development and collaboration.
During 2019, more than 89,000 people attended over 400 university events, including conferences, expos, athletic events and tournaments, youth sports camps, commencement ceremonies, and artistic performances, including gallery shows, dramatic performances, and musical productions.
Spending by residents who reside outside Sebastian County is particularly noteworthy, as their economic contribution in hotel stays, food and beverage consumption, and other spending directly supports both large and small businesses in the River Valley. These visitors spent approximately $1.1 million in Sebastian County in 2019 alone.
The study was completed by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute with the intent to determine the economic impact of the existing facilities, programs, and sponsored grants associated with UAFS and its internal functions, departments, and affiliates in the Fort Smith metropolitan area, using the widely-respected IMPLAN Economic Model to identify, measure, and analyze economic contribution. The report examines faculty and staff spending, student spending, campus visitor spending, and university operations, maintenance, capital projects, and miscellaneous expenditures, through direct, indirect, and induced economic effects. The full methodology is explained on pages 2-3 of the report.
This report differs in some aspects from the 2016 Fort Smith Economic Impact Study. AEDI was tasked with determining the university’s economic contribution to Sebastian County, while the earlier study focused on the six counties that comprise the Greater Fort Smith region. This fact explains differences in job numbers and the figure for economic activity attributed to UAFS.
The more recent study’s scope, confined to spending in Sebastian County, also accounted for different spending estimates for faculty, staff, and students. The AEDI report, unlike the 2016 study, also adjusted its spending estimates to account for staff residency, online students, and students living outside the study area. There was a reduction in capital projects undertaken during the period examined by AEDI. However, the estimate for visitor spending was larger since it included visitors within the Fort Smith metropolitan statistical area excluded from the previous report.