Wichita, Kan. — The number of people enrolling at public colleges in Kansas keeps heading downward — a trend that could bring on more than the usual budgetary nips and tucks.

The most drastic changes, and cuts, pose a particular threat to regional schools in Hays, Emporia and Hays that could steal away a source of jobs and prestige that help define the communities that surround the campuses.

Any changes to higher education in Kansas look bound to face resistance — from faculty, students, administrators and businesses invested heavily in one campus or the next.

Yet the Kansas Board of Regents voted unanimously in February to hire the Maryland-based RPK Group, a business and education consulting firm, to review degree programs at all six major universities. It will analyze areas of duplication, workforce needs and the varying rates of demand among academic programs.

Kansas taxpayers subsidize six traditional, four-year universities and more than two dozen smaller community colleges and technical schools. Nearly 250,000 students are enrolled in at least one class. Collectively, they pay nearly $800 million a year in tuition. The state kicks in another $580 million in funding.

Together, the big six universities — the University of Kansas Kansas State, Wichita State, Emporia State, Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State — offer more than 1,500 degree programs. Some experts say that’s too much.

“It is not sustainable, and things that aren’t sustainable will ultimately stop,” said Rick Staisloff, founder of RPK Group. “If we don’t want it to stop, it means we have to get ahead of the curve and start making change now.”

Republican Rep. Barbara Wasinger, co-chair of the House Higher Education Budget Committee, spent much of the past legislative session drilling university leaders about declining enrollment, rising budgets and expanding course offerings.

“Have you gone through your curriculum and your colleges to see which ones you might be able to weed out?” Wasinger asked Fort Hays State President Tia Mason.

When Regents President Blake Flanders addressed the committee, it was the same story.

“Have you … found what kind of programs just are not making the grade?” Wasinger asked. “Are you constantly going through to check to see what’s working and what isn’t, and what you should delete?”

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Suzanne Perez / Kansas News Service: Jane Lickteig, a recruitment specialist for Wichita State University, presents an overview of WSU to prospective students.

That line of questioning, paired with RPK’s system-wide analysis due out this summer, has university officials nervous about what could happen next.

When RPK conducted a similar review in Vermont, it led to the consolidation of several state colleges.

At KU, officials are considering cutting dozens of programs and degrees, including some humanities degrees, art education, and peace and conflict studies. Chancellor Doug Girod said it could happen without faculty reductions. Savings would come from ditching low-enrollment classes for higher-demand ones that make more money for the university, he said.

At Fort Hays State, officials recently proposed consolidating 11 liberal arts departments into five schools. The plan — which was put on pause after an outcry from students and faculty — would eliminate five department chairs and several administrative assistants. University officials said they’d try to reassign workers if possible.

“We have to look at the expense side of the equation,” said Staisloff, the RPK founder. “Why does it cost what it costs to offer quality higher education, and what are the levers under our control that could reduce that cost?”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a steep drop in enrollment. Most of those students haven’t returned. Over the past five years, enrollment at the six major Kansas universities fell by more than 8%. Community colleges and technical schools were even worse, dropping 17%. Economists predict the population of college students nationwide will drop another 15% over the next eight years.

And the higher education business model that leaned heavily on students living on campus was broken even before the pandemic.

“Why go back to a model that wasn’t really getting the job done?” Staisloff said.

Consultants have already hinted that the state’s university system is unwieldy and not meeting workforce needs. About two-thirds of Kansas college students are enrolled in just a handful of degree programs – fields like business, engineering and health. For lower-demand degrees like philosophy, music or liberal arts, Staisloff says some schools might consider offering courses in those areas even as they ditch full degree programs.

“We can ensure that students are becoming the well-rounded human beings we want to create,” he said, “but we can do it in a way that is much more efficient.”

It might make sense to have major programs centered at a few universities and to cut back or consolidate elsewhere, but that could devastate communities like Emporia, Pittsburg and Hays, where colleges are major factors in the local economy and way of life.

Tisa Mason, president of Fort Hays State University, told lawmakers recently that the school’s interaction with the community is “tight for a lot of reasons.”

Local high schools play football at the university’s stadium. Residents depend on the school’s theater, orchestra and other fine arts programs for their cultural value. Technology students from Fort Hays even helped design and build a downtown pavilion and parking garage.

“There are so many ways that we are interacting every single day in that community,” Mason said. “Our presence matters.”

A large portion of a university’s enrollment — particularly in rural areas — comes from nearby communities. Research shows that more than 40% of first-year college students opt for schools that are less than 50 miles away from home.

Regent Wint Winter said the board should be tuned into student needs and each university’s mission as well as the bottom line. But he voted in favor of the RPK study because enrollment figures are bad and getting worse.

“Advocates of higher education need to be mindful of … these trends and (ask) ourselves: Are they permanent? Are they transitory?” he said. “If they’re not, what can we do to turn that around?”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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