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Kansas Universities Continue To Lose Students While Community Colleges Pick Up A Few

Students walking on a college campus.
Carlos Moreno
At the University of Kansas, the state’s flagship institution, enrollment has dropped 5% over the past five years.

Wichita, Kansas — Enrollment at Kansas colleges and universities fell again this fall, continuing a systemwide decline of more than 11% over the past five years.

Kansas Board of Regents chairwoman Cheryl Harrison-Lee said in a statement Thursday that schools “must reverse that trend to meet the workforce needs of our state” and to revitalize the state’s economy.

The Regents measure enrollment both by student headcount and by full-time enrollment equivalency.

Headcount enrollment, or the total number of students taking classes at the state’s largest universities, rose by about 1,600 students, or 1%, this fall. That’s due partly to more high school students returning to in-person school and enrolling in college-credit classes.

Yet the number of actual full-time college students dropped by 1,735, or 2.4% last year.

That full-time equivalency count more accurately reflects a university’s financial health because it tracks closely with the tuition and fees schools pull in.

Community colleges showed a slight uptick in enrollment — up 425 students, or 1.2%, over last year. Technical colleges saw an increase of 57 full-time equivalent students, or 1%.

But long-term enrollment trends for nearly every higher education institution in Kansas are down, and some significantly.

Over the past five years, enrollment is down 8.6% at four-year universities and 17.5% at community colleges.

At the University of Kansas, the state’s flagship institution, enrollment has dropped 5% over the past five years.

KU officials pointed to steady year-over-year headcount numbers, which they attributed to increases in first-time freshmen and transfer students, as well as new international students.

“This year’s data indicate we have weathered the worst part of the pandemic,” Chancellor Douglas Girod said in a statement. “Even before the pandemic, we were facing the national context of declining college enrollment, along with flat or declining population here in the Midwest. These challenges haven’t gone away.”

With continued uncertainty over COVID-19, universities in Kansas could be facing the biggest money crisis ever.

Kansas State University’s enrollment declined 3.4% this fall and 17.6% over the past five years.

Karen Goos, K-State’s vice provost for enrollment management, said pandemic challenges continue. But she said that recruitment of new freshmen and transfers has stabilized.

Wichita State University’s full-time equivalent enrollment is more positive — up 2.2% this year and 2.1% over the past five years. WSU Tech enrollment fell slightly this year, by 2%, but is up 24.2% over the past five years.

WSU President Rick Muma said the university has recruited a record number of out-of-state students, thanks to initiatives that offer reduced tuition to students from Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and other cities along the Interstate 35 corridor.

Emporia State’s enrollment has declined 11.6% over five years. Pittsburg State’s dropped 20.4%.

Both universities are seeking new leadership. Emporia State President Allison Garrett announced this month she is leaving to take over Oklahoma’s state university system. Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott announced over the summer that he will step down from his position in June 2022.

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.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.