Students and faculty members at Southeast Arkansas College were asked Wednesday for their thoughts on the possibility of the school adding on-campus or near-campus housing in the future.
SEARK President Steven Bloomberg hosted what was described as a “town hall meeting” to discuss the issue not only for traditional students but for those who are married with families, and even for people who work for the school.
Bloomberg said that when he came to SEARK in January, he visited classes and students, asking what the school could do to improve the lives of students. One of the things he heard was that students wanted activities besides just going to class.
“Seabrook (which the school leased earlier this year and which will serve as an activity center for intramural sports and other things) was a direct result of that,” Bloomberg said.
“That led us to think about housing, but it will be at least a couple of years down the line. We’re not going to start moving dirt tomorrow, but we’re beginning the process to get us there.”
Mentioning the school’s motto, “Empowering Students, Changing Lives,” Bloomberg said that if what SEARK has to do to make that a reality is to talk housing, “We will talk housing.”
Going a step further, he said the average student at SEARK faces several barriers in their quest to move forward, including issues with transportation, children, a safe environment in which to study and affordable housing.
Citing a study by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bloomberg said half of students at community colleges like SEARK work at least part-time and half have no access to safe, affordable housing.
Part of the problem, Bloomberg said, is that while there is housing in Pine Bluff, many students, and others who have little or no credit history, find that paying deposits for utility bills while at the same time trying to worry about paying rent, car payments and living expenses, prices them out of the market.
“Housing needs to be on the agenda,” he said.
Going a little further, Bloomberg said that when he mentions housing, he is not just talking about traditional 18-to-24 year-olds who are in college, maybe for the first time.
“We’ve got to be more flexible,” he said, adding that any plan would also include married students with families, and “We have people here who are part of the working poor. Everything needs to be rolled into one price. This is not a money-making venture. Students would pay the equivalent of a monthly rental without the utilities deposits.”
Bloomberg said more than 75 percent of the 1,500 community colleges around the country offer campus housing, and he asked those attending the session to complete a survey form, which, in addition to housing, also asked about student food options.
Asked where the housing might be located, he said that while SEARK owns the property across from campus on Hazel Street, he thought that it would be unacceptable because of traffic on the street and because Hazel Street is only two lanes with a turning lane.
Another option, and one he seemed to favor, was property behind the Technology Center on West 18th Avenue.
“We could also talk to the city about the possibility of closing part of 18th so people there could walk to campus,” he said.
Asked about funding, Bloomberg said nothing is currently in the works, and any such project would be expensive. “We’re looking at fundraising,” he said, adding that SEARK has “zero debt,” but the idea of selling bonds and using the proceeds to finance housing could price that housing out of the market for the people the school is trying to serve.