Kansas community colleges, universities grapple with enrollment declines

Kansas universities and community colleges are facing falling enrollments while investments in technical education and driving a boost for training programs, Kansas Board of Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said Tuesday.

 

Flanders briefed members of the Kansas Senate Education committee about the changes in higher education enrollment.

Enrollment has fallen over the past two years at several four-year universities, including the Kansas State University, and most community colleges across Kansas. Flanders said that was concerning because it makes it more difficult for educators to meet their goal of getting degrees or certificates in the hands of at least 60 percent of Kansas adults.

“Students that complete some college have better health outcomes,” Flanders said. “They earn higher salaries. They make our businesses more competitive, so if we don’t have the enrollments coming in and if we’re not then also improving our graduation rates, we won’t have as many completers who in the end have degrees.”

To solve that issue, Flanders said the Board of Regents was looking at how it recruits students from Kansas and other states and how it can serve the needs of first-generation college students who may struggle to adapt to campus. The University of Kansas announced last month it would cut out-of-state tuition prices in an effort to attract students and redirect scholarship funds toward need-based, in-state awards.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat, said the changes in enrollment at universities weren’t “glaring,” but it was important to look at program offerings and make sure that lines up with demands in various communities.

Enrollment at Cowley Community College dropped more than 20 percent between the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 school years.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, asked whether standardized test scores are an accurate predictor of student success as the Board of Regents works to improve graduation rates.

Flanders said it can be difficult to judge students based on test scores, so colleges also weigh factors, like grades and class rank.

The biggest priority for Flanders and the board this session will be restoring cuts made to higher education in an effort to balance the budget under Gov. Sam Brownback’s now-repealed income tax cuts. Brownback didn’t include those funds for higher education in his controversial budget released last week.

Flanders said it was too early to know whether schools would propose tuition hikes to make up for lost revenue.

“That’s our number one priority, so we’re going to continue to advocate for just getting that cut restored because then in terms of this enrollment, we know that we can keep tuition reasonable for Kansans and that more people will have a chance to access our system,” Flanders said.

Pettey said rising costs of higher education were “unsustainable” for families in her district.

“I want to see more low-income children and families to have the opportunity for higher education and making it more costly just makes it harder and harder all the time,” Pettey said.

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