By Bob Allen
A year after facing lawsuits from creditors and doubts by an accrediting body that it could continue to fulfill its educational mission, a historically African-American Baptist college with close ties to a state Cooperative Baptist Fellowship celebrated the grand opening of a new community union building March 10.
A crowd described by local media as hundreds of people attended the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for Arkansas Baptist College’s First Security Community Union. The three-story brick building, opened unofficially to students last fall, contains dining options and a barista bar, a bookstore, computer stations and space for students to unwind.
The building, first planned about nine years ago but put on hold due to financial restraints, is part of a new goal to help students assist in paying for their education through an off-campus College Work-Study Program, Arkansas Baptist College President Fitz Hill said in a news release.
To qualify with the Department of Education as a CWSP, all full-time students that live on campus are required to work to make college affordable and decrease the amount of federal financial aid needed to attend Arkansas Baptist College.
Hill, a former college football coach, is the 13th president of the school founded as a “Minister’s Institute” in August 1884 at the annual convention of the Colored Baptists of the State of Arkansas. When Hill arrived in 2006, the school was on the brink of closing.
One of his first partnerships to revitalize both the school and surrounding community was the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas, which in 2007 relocated offices to a restored 19th-century home on the college campus.
The multifaceted partnership includes CBF support for Hill’s vision to provide a college education to the underserved and to revitalize a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in Little Rock. The two groups work together on building renovation projects, literacy and prison ministry and modeling healthy race relations through a New Baptist Covenant movement in Arkansas.
Hill’s success gained widespread media attention but was nearly derailed in 2013, when a financial-aid reporting issue was compounded by problems automating the college’s financial-aid system.
The U.S. Department of Education, which typically disburses federal funding for students to reimburse colleges in advance, placed Arkansas Baptist College on “Heightened Cash Monitoring 2,” delaying payment until after the school makes disbursements to student or parent borrowers.
The result was a cash-flow crisis, complete with unmet payroll, lawsuits resulting from unpaid bills and calls for Hill to resign. The Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission put the school on notice in February that it is in danger of being out of compliance with one or more of the commission’s accreditation criteria. That status is up for review in June.
Relief came last December in the form of a $30 million funding agreement though the U.S. Department of Education’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities Capital Loan Financing Program, allowing Arkansas Baptist College to pay off short-term debt, reduce debt-service costs and build cash reserves.
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Tuesday’s ceremony included numerous references to the triumph over past struggles. “God has truly blessed us here at Arkansas Baptist College,” Hill told the audience.
The top of the building is home to the Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship and Community Development, the college’s flagship entrepreneurship initiative funded by a $2.5 million donation by the former chief executive officer of Alltel Corp. in 2011.
The center combines business education with micro-enterprise loans aimed at spurring business development in urban areas.