By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

[Perspective] A Baptist university rises

By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

Editor’s Note: This article draws on President Sells’ report to the recent Arkansas Baptist State Convention Annual Meeting. 

Arkansas Baptist churches, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, Williams Baptist University and Ouachita Baptist University are better together in helping the next generation contend for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints. 

Through Super Summer, Joy Works and Praise Works, conferences for pastors and counselors – and the addition of Centrifuge, Ouachita hosted 4,400 junior and senior high school students and adults on our campus last year.  

Located on a bluff along the Ouachita River, where the Ouachita mountains fade toward the Delta, a Baptist university rises. 

By God’s grace, the partnership with you and many others, along with the wisdom of faithful leaders, faculty, and staff who came before us, Ouachita is fortunate to have significant institutional momentum. 

I’m especially grateful for the new ABSC Executive Director, Dr. Rex Horne, my predecessor, who strengthened Ouachita, who positioned the university for progress and who has been a friend and advisor to me. 

This year we have a total enrollment of 1,815 students which is our highest in 57 years. It represents a 20% increase since 2016. It’s especially noteworthy, because total university enrollment in Arkansas decreased by 8% during the same time. 

About 65% of our students are from the Natural State with hundreds from Arkansas Baptist churches. And Ouachita draws students from 28 states and 23 countries.  

Parents of students tell us that our distinctively Christian mission is the leading reason they send their sons and daughters to Ouachita. In a recent survey, more than 85% of our students identified themselves as Christians and most commonly refer to themselves as “followers of Jesus.” We want to see students grow spiritually – and desire to invite other students to also become followers of Jesus. 

We attract students interested in our Christian mission who are academically motivated. The average high school grade point average for this year’s freshman class is 3.8. We also attract students inspired by opportunity, as about 25% of our students are from lower incomes or the first one in their family to attend college.  

Because of increased enrollment, generous giving from Arkansas Baptists and alumni, stewardship of our endowment by the Arkansas Baptist Foundation and careful budget management, Ouachita Baptist is financially stronger than at any time in recent decades. Ouachita’s annual independent audit consistently demonstrates resources being stewarded well.   

Students are coming to Ouachita in record numbers – and graduating in record numbers. 

At our May Commencement, we awarded 412 degrees, the most in 40 years, reflecting a four-year graduation rate that ranks among the top in Arkansas – and about double the average of other universities in the state. It includes a placement rate of 99% – compared to a national average of 84%. A high graduation rate reflects high student satisfaction and outcomes. 

Ouachita has significant momentum because of our: 

  • Christ-centered and biblically anchored commitments, 
  • Arkansas Baptist Partnership, 
  • Faculty and staff who personally invest in students, 
  • Students who are attracted to our mission and outcomes, 
  • Strategic efforts to communicate our identity and mission, and our 
  • Innovation and speed in starting new undergraduate and graduate programs. 

Our new undergraduate and graduate programs respond to student interest, reflect needs in our state and region and represent opportunities for people of Christian faith to serve others. At the undergraduate level, we’ve started new programs in criminal justice, engineering, and nursing.  

At the graduate level, we have started five new programs in five years. The Applied Behavior Analysis Program, the only one in the state, prepares professionals to help families with children who have developmental disorders like autism or have other special needs.  

Our programs in nutrition and exercise science prepare graduates to help people live healthier lives. The program in education builds upon a large undergraduate program, fortifying our commitment to prepare Christians to serve in the classroom. We launched the MBA degree three months ago. 

We plan to start a graduate program next fall in clinical mental health counseling. We need more men and women of Christian faith to serve as professionally licensed counselors. Arkansas also has a shortage of 15,000 nurses. Five years ago, Ouachita had no nursing majors, and this fall we have 120. 

By clicking here, you can scroll down to watch a brief video featuring a student who grew up in an Arkansas Baptist church who shares about her interest in Ouachita’s nursing program. Since this video, Brooklyn Hester married another student, Andrew Laney. 

Andrew also grew up in an Arkansas Baptist church. He is a worship studies major at Ouachita, a program that has grown from a few majors to more than 30 under the leadership of Larry Grayson. As a student, Andrew is also serving at an Arkansas Baptist church. Brooklyn and Andrew will graduate in May. 

While there are 3,000 colleges and universities in our country, there are less than 200 institutions of Christian higher education like Ouachita and Williams – and the number is decreasing.  

Why are there so few intentionally Christian universities? Because it’s difficult given demographic trends, financial challenges and cultural forces unfriendly to Christian faith. 

In Arkansas, we’re fortunate to have a state government that supports private Christian education at all levels. It certainly helps to have a Governor who is a Ouachita graduate, the Speaker of the House who is a Ouachita graduate and a Senate leader who is a parent of Ouachita students. 

In this state, we’re fortunate to have a voluntary fellowship of autonomous churches – known as “Arkansas Baptists.” Your shared Christian commitments, cooperative effort and generous support over a long period of time have positioned your two Baptist universities to stay true to their Christian higher education missions.  

For over 138 years, Arkansas Baptists and Ouachita Baptist University have worked together to build and sustain a distinctively Christian institution of higher education. With the Lord’s blessing, Ouachita is rising and has significant momentum as it carries out its mission of fostering a love of God, learning and people. 

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