Higher education in Kansas is in trouble — here’s how to start fixing it

A group of students and their teacher standing in front of the District #9 sod schoolhouse in Thomas County, Kansas. (KansasMemory.org, Kansas Historical Society)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jean Folkerts recently served as interim director at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at Kansas State University.

In pioneer Kansas towns, public schools rose out of the sod, followed quickly by institutions of higher education. Those pioneers knew that quality education was fundamental to a growing state.

Today, higher education in Kansas is in serious trouble, which started before the pandemic. There is no rescue in sight as further cuts to state institutions loom in Topeka.

My own education started in a one-room school in the Nebraska Sandhills, the foundation for a career in university teaching and administration at both private and public universities across the country, most recently as interim director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at Kansas State University. I have watched in growing alarm as Kansas higher education institutions deteriorate.

In Kansas, seven state universities, one municipal university, 19 community colleges and seven technical colleges are serving a population that at best is stagnant and at worst is declining. Last year, Kansas had 492,102 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Kansas Association of School Boards projects the number will drop to 466,741 by 2024-25. Further, the percentage of Kansas high school students pursuing higher education is dropping, and international students are going elsewhere.

Without an overall strategic approach, the regents and institutional leaders are devastating institutions with across-the-board cuts, hoping without evidence the problem will fix itself. It will not.

Faculty positions are being lost, buildings are deteriorating, and programs are being gutted. Each institution is on its own, with little or no statewide coordination, strategy or plan of action. Institutions are pitted against each other and nearby states to recruit from a dwindling enrollment base.

Jeffrey Pickering, a professor and former head of the Department of Political Science at K-State, offers an example of the devastating impact of across-the-board cuts. In the late 2000s, K-State initiated the country’s first Ph.D. in Security Studies. Master’s and doctoral programs were designed in cooperation with the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. K-State attracted top faculty and its graduates were highly successful. However, the program has been hollowed out, with funding for 12 graduate students cut to three, with no operating budget.

Now, another university has copied K-State’s program, is recruiting K-State faculty, funds 25 graduate teaching assistants and relies on K-State faculty to evaluate its program. Cutting this program off at the knees exemplifies the disastrous effect of across-the-board cuts. K-State is losing a distinctive niche to another state.

I witnessed the crisis first-hand, as K-State’s A.Q. Miller School lost five faculty positions over a two-year period. The recent accrediting report documented the lack of resources: “The current budget is a major hurdle in the school’s efforts to serve its present student population and to achieve its vision for the future.” The school, with 300-plus students, almost certainly will lose accreditation unless major changes are made soon.

Another example: The University of Kansas is the only institution in the state that belongs to the prestigious American Association of Universities. Yet, in funding, it hovers near the bottom of the group and is in danger of being eliminated.

The governor, regents, chancellors, presidents and other leaders must organize a statewide advocacy effort to convince legislators and the public about the deteriorating institutions in the state and the need for change.

The governor also should, as political scientist Burdett Loomis recently suggested, establish a blue-ribbon, nonpartisan commission to evaluate the higher education system. My thoughts about issues such a commission should address:

  • Kansas has too many institutions. Some will need to be eliminated, combined with others or redirected to new missions.
  • Institutions are not well targeted to minority population groups, the only population groups that are expanding.
  • Generic programs at multiple institutions do not serve the state. Focused programs designed in accordance with institutional missions do. The graduate programs in security studies — a perfect fit for K-State’s mission — are an example of programs that should be funded and enhanced.
  • Buildings at campuses need work. K-State, a major research university and critical to the state’s agricultural economy, does not have adequate heating or air conditioning in some of its major classrooms and office buildings. One classroom regularly floods.
  • Online programs are not an answer for 34 institutions. They could be an answer for a few.

Success will not be easy. Kansans must make a choice to preserve and increase the quality and accessibility of education, whether it be at a technical or community college, at a regional university or at a major research institution.

They must make the tough decisions necessary to protect quality education, knowing, as the pioneers did, that it is fundamental to the health of the state.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.