The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith made the transition from community college to four-year university just 12 years ago and already, the school is preparing to offer its first master's degree.
Dr. Ray Wallace, provost and senior vice chancellor of UAFS, said the transition to a university granting masters degrees was already well underway.
"We have our first major hurdle completed, which was tentative approval by the University of Arkansas system," he said. "Now we're working with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, who will send an outside team of evaluators this Spring."
The first master's degree to be offered by UAFS will be a master of science in healthcare administration, Wallace said, adding that the team of evaluators would be a mix of graduate deans, administrators and others in the healthcare and education sectors who will evaluate the school's "readiness to offer this first degree program."
As for why healthcare administration would be the first master's offered at the school, Dr. Carolyn Mosley, dean of the UAFS College of Health Sciences, said it was the university's way of answering a call.
"Our healthcare providers and business partners in the community have asked that we have a master's program," she said. "We consulted with 30 major healthcare institutions and more than 70% said they'd have a position today for someone who went through this program."
While there is a great demand for the program that is expected to launch in 2015, Wallace said the first entering class would be a small group of students, meaning admissions would be highly competitive.
"The very first cap will be 10 students," he said. "Then it will grow quite dramatically. …We want to take 10 through it and then work out the kinds. Then after that, you'll see classes in the 40s and 50s eventually."
The program, Mosley said, would be a 33 hour program which will allow graduates to hold a variety of leadership and administrative positions within a hospital setting.
"The management in healthcare administration is for a person who wants to be an administrator in healthcare," she said. "This degree focuses on that system. Healthcare ethics and laws. All those caution and knowledge areas that that person would have to have and probably would not get in (another graduate program). The focus is healthcare. If that person wants to go into healthcare, this is the program for them."
UAFS Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran said the new degree program was just the latest step forward for a university that recently opened an expanded library on campus in addition to unveiling an updated 20 year master plan.
“This is very exciting for UAFS and the Greater Fort Smith Region,” said Beran. "With the opening of our new library as another significant accomplishment in the last seven years. In the biggest, biggest perspective, the ability to grant master’s degrees — with the library to support it — shows we are meeting the needs of our region’s citizens.”
Wallace said once the university is granted a change in role and scope, allowing it to offer master's degrees, the university would not stick with offering only the master of science in healthcare administration, but instead would explore other degree programs that meet the needs of the Fort Smith region.
"This institution is looking at a limited number of graduate programs to help meet the needs of the community, but also take advantage of the types of faculty we're hiring. They're great teachers, but also great researchers and scholars."
Not only will new graduate degree offerings take advantage of the skill sets offered by UAFS professors, but Wallace said it would "increase the prestige of the institution."
As for what graduate programs could follow a master of science in healthcare administration, Wallace said it is too early to tell.
"Right now, we're looking first and foremost at getting this one through. Down the road, I can see us looking at education programs and other colleges and degree programs that there is a need for in the area," adding that school districts in the region have expressed a need for UAFS to begin offering master's degrees.
And while some districts have expressed a need for graduate degrees in education, Wallace said just as with the Master of Science in Healthcare Administration, it will be based on the needs of the region and business community as a whole.
"When the next one comes, it will be because of local economic development forces, local employers, regional employers have asked us to do it."