Kansas public college, university enrollment increase of 1% obscures bleak five-year trend

Higher education enrollment down 8.6% since 2017 despite technical college surge

By: - September 30, 2021 1:46 pm
Enrollment at the public universities, community colleges and technical colleges under direction of the Kansas Board of Regents increased overall enrollment 1% in the fall semester following a massive decline in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Enrollment at the public universities, community colleges and technical colleges under direction of the Kansas Board of Regents increased overall enrollment 1% in the fall semester following a massive decline in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Student enrollment this fall semester at Kansas’ 26 public community and technical colleges and the seven public universities climbed 1% after a historic headcount collapse last year fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said Thursday.

Recovering from the higher education system’s loss of more than 14,000 students in the first year of the pandemic has implications for the future of state taxpayer funding, adjustment of student tuition rates and the viability of academic programs. Campus officials have made clear that operating costs continued to rise with inflation and weakness in the flow of tuition revenue wouldn’t help with that reality.

Overall, the fall 2021 total of 166,900 students at universities and colleges under direction of the Kansas Board of Regents was 1,700 more than at this point in 2020.

Even with the modest 1% increase in enrollment systemwide, the state’s colleges and universities have lost 8.6% of enrollment in the past five years. In that same period, community colleges suffered a 16.4% decline. That’s worse than the 4.8% fall at the six state universities and the 14.8% crash at the municipal Washburn University in Topeka. Meanwhile, technical college enrollment has gone up 23% in the past five years.

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents, said the system of pubic higher education needs to reverse a five-year enrollment decline of 8.6% to deliver the workforce required of business and industry. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman of the state Board of Regents, said the trend of declining enrollment during the previous five years had to be negated.

“We must reverse that trend to meet the workforce needs of our state,” Harrison-Lee said. “The board’s strategic plan, annual goals and budget ask are focused on initiatives that can leverage our system’s strengths and revitalize the Kansas economy.”

The preliminary census for the fall 2021 semester was a mixed bag. The report showed a 7.6% increase at technical colleges and a 4.5% surge at community colleges.

The most impressive growth was at Johnson County Community College, up 19.8%, and Dodge City Community College, up 18.7%. The sharpest decline was reported at Barton County Community College, which fell 9.8%. Among technical schools, enrollments increased dramatically at Salina Area Technical College, up 22.2%; Flint Hills Technical College, up 11.7%; and Washburn Institute of Technology, up 11.4%.

The six state universities collectively lost 1.7% of enrollment from one year ago, while Washburn University declined 3.8%. Wichita State University bucked the trend by increasing the student body by 3.5%. Losses in student enrollment were documented at Fort Hays State University, down 6.2%; Pittsburg State University, down 6%; Emporia State University, down 3.7%; and Kansas State University, down 3.1%.

The University of Kansas’ enrollment on the Lawrence campus was flat — enrolling 23,958 students, or six fewer than in fall 2020. KU reported a 7.6% increase in first-time freshmen and 11.6% increase in transfer students.

“We are pleased to have held steady on enrollment this year and to have seen growth in key areas such as first-time freshman and transfer students,” said Doug Girod, chancellor of KU. “This year’s data indicate we have weathered the worst part of the pandemic, which speaks volumes of the work our faculty and staff have done to recruit, educate and support students during such an uncertain time.”

He said KU had to be steadfast in its commitment to recruit and retain top students. Prior to the pandemic, he said, the university’s enrollment was influenced by declining U.S. college enrollment and flat population growth in the Midwest.

Fall enrollment increased at the KU Medical Center by 2%, the report said, while enrollment in the veterinary medicine college at Kansas State declined by 0.2%.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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