TOPEKA — Friends University in Wichita offers a bachelor’s degree in zoo science, while Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, is ranked as the most diverse college in the Midwest.
Baker University, the oldest continuously operated college in Kansas, emerged in 1858 long before the state’s big-time public universities launched. And, McPherson College delivers a premier program in antique auto restoration.
These accredited nonprofit higher education institutions help form the backbone of the Kansas Independent College Association. Each of the association’s 20 liberal arts colleges and universities have vibrant stories to tell about contributing to the state’s well being and workforce, said Matt Lindsey, president of the association.
He said Kansas didn’t possess a name-brand, elite private college, such as Notre Dame, Stanford or Duke. Instead, there’s the set of private schools with enrollments ranging from 300 to 3,600 that operate alongside an assortment of more than 30 public universities and colleges.
“We have to speak up a little louder to talk about some of the great things that we do,” Lindsey said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “We are often put up against the public four-year schools. Our native thinking in Kansas is towards KU, K-State and Wichita State. We need all of us rowing together to have a have a thriving economy and culture in this state. And that leads to a lot of really potent conversations in policymaking about what our role can be.”
Lindsey said the state’s private liberal arts colleges and universities sometimes get bogged down in stereotypes about high tuition and diversity deficits, but these institutions were a magnet for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last fall, Kansas’ independent colleges and universities served a total of 23,263 students, a total decline of 5.6%. However, enrollment on their main campuses of the association’s schools was up over 2%. Slippage at satellite campuses was met by a 7% increase in out-of-state students.
At the same time, enrollment dropped 3.6% at the six public universities operated by the Kansas Board of Regents. The headcount dipped 11.7% at public community colleges and fell by 8.7% at public technical colleges in Kansas.
“That was driven by a lot of actually out-of-state students coming to Kansas private colleges,” Lindsey said. “I suspect that’s because we committed to being in-person and doing the best we could to be a community where we held each other accountable for the things that that kept us safe from COVID.”
Private schools in the association possess about 11% of the college student population in Kansas, but award one-fifth of bachelor’s degrees. These colleges and universities produced 40% of nursing bachelor’s degrees and 19% of the state’s new teachers.
Virtue of size, mission
Lindsey said a student choosing to attend Manhattan Christian College instead of Emporia State University, for example, might be drawn to a more personalized academic environment not possible at larger schools. He said the private Christian college’s president, Kevin Ingram, could walk around campus and refer to student after student by name. That’s not realistic for ESU president Allison Garrett or other executives at large universities.
“Not just the name, but, you know, ‘Did you study for your math test? Great job in the volleyball game last night. How’s your grandmother?’ That’s a virtue of our size and mission. I don’t think it would be fair to ask president Garrett to be able to do that at Emporia State. The mission is different,” he said.
The net cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree at Kansas Independent College Association schools was $69,000, because few students were obligated to pay the stated price due to financial assistance, Lindsey said. A key distinction in the financial analysis was 84% of graduates of these 20 private schools finished in four years, he said. The four-year graduation rate at University of Kansas has been about 50%.
Lindsey said the college-debt problem was most acute among students who borrowed a pile of money to take an extra on or two years to graduate or didn’t complete a degree offering access to careers with higher earning potential. Instead of a marketable asset, he said, college turned into a liability for those who don’t finish on time or at all.
He said he was skeptical the state’s private schools would endorse a national policy offering free community college tuition across the nation.
“I’m not in favor of that approach. And I don’t think our private colleges would see that as favorable. A federal policy of saying this sector is what we’re going to support in broad strokes strikes us as problematic on a precedent basis,” he said.