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Fort Hays State president offers insight on the unique challenges of running a rural university

Courtesy photo

Tisa Mason job comes with a lot of the challenges many colleges face: building enrollment, working to keep college affordable and the lengthy battle with Covid-19, both here and at the campus Fort Hays State helps operate in China.

Courtesy photo

Tisa Mason became president of Fort Hays State University in December 2017.

Mason talked with Tom Shine and The Range about those challenges and one unique to Fort Hays State: convincing the shrinking number of high school graduates in western Kansas to attend college.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

SHINE: You said in a newspaper article in February of 2020, "It used to be several years ago it was said the population that does not go to college are students of color. Well, now the biggest population not going to college are rural students." Why aren't rural students going to college?

MASON: I wish I knew actually. But we know that is a concern in all of America. One of the things that we are proud of, although we need to do a better job, is we are educating rural students.

But we still know it's a challenge to get students to move forward. I do know that sometimes in rural communities, people are concerned – parents and families are concerned – about losing their students, their sons and their daughters, of … getting a college education and then coming back to the town.

Enrollment at Fort Hays State is down about 7% over the last five years, which is better than most schools in the state. Beginning next fall, you'll offer reduced tuition rates to on-campus students from 13 states in the region. Is the recruiting of students just sort of a never-ending battle?

It is just like any business. You have to learn to grow and innovate. But we're very excited about next year. Up until two years ago, or the pandemic really, we had 19 consecutive years of growth.

So we know that we have to adjust some things because of the pandemic. Everybody's changing a little bit and tweaking things, and we are prepared to do that.

So as things rebound and we continue to innovate, we're pretty confident that we will be able to move forward and get that not consecutive, but that 20th year of enrollment growth.

You're also battling a little bit of a demographic issue, too, in western Kansas. The number of students graduating from high schools in western Kansas is declining every year, and I assume that's a pretty big base for you.

My concern though, in terms of traditional-age students in Kansas, is not as much based on demographic as it is that our traditional-age students are not going to college. So if you look at the drop of FAFSA completers, it's not necessarily that we're losing them to other states, but they're not even completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And I'm not sure really at this point what's going on.

But that's a huge concern if our young people choose other options than going to college. That is going to impact our economy, our civic groups, our ability to have thoughtful dialogue, so many aspects down the road, which we will – suffer from seems like a strong word – but there'll be repercussions.

And so I would really like to encourage young people to think about the opportunity that college will provide for them. Community college, tech school, university, grad school, there are lots of different options. But something in terms of moving forward with their career and their livelihood and their engagement in the community would be really helpful.

Fort Hays State has made a concerted effort to keep tuition and fees down. Long-term, let's say 15 or 20 years, how do colleges remain affordable?

We continue to get a lot of pressure on costs. I know for Fort Hays, that's a part of our mission and our value.
We're going to have to be flexible. We're going to have to think differently. We're going to have to come together. But the magnetic north for me is to make sure that we are continuing to provide our businesses with an educated workforce and our communities with educated leaders and volunteer citizens to help us be successful in our daily lives.

The pandemic has certainly impacted everything we do … including education at all levels. What's going to be the lasting impact of COVID-19 on higher education?

I think the lasting impact is going to be … we get a little nudge to keep moving forward. There are some best practices that are going to come out of COVID. I know there's some concern that some of the current traditional-age high school students may not be as prepared to go to college, but we're not concerned about that because we continue to invest in student support services and we can meet students where they are.
We learned with the technology of Zoom … that all of a sudden when our student-athletes, for example, are on the road, they can Zoom in when they're on that bus and not miss as much.

If you're not feeling good … but you're good enough to Zoom in where you don't go in and infect people, whether it's the flu or a stomach ache or whatever.

I think we'll have some more hybrid classes and learning; how to come together and have a discussion and then go out and do some experimenting on your own and coming back. So I think that there'll be some new innovation in those areas.

Talk about your China operation a little bit and … why you continue to be involved in that?

And so on the one hand, I think we've just been doing a really good job at increasing our international footprint. And don't we want as future leaders, especially under such a geopolitical world that we live in, to have people who had a positive experience with an American university as they were coming through as leaders?

But also it has been a significant source of revenue for us. The revenue that we have made in China has helped us expand our programs in the United States and keep our tuition affordable for Kansans.

Other than the chancellor at KU, Douglas Girod, you're going to be the second-longest tenured university president in the state. Is turnover at the presidential level an indication of how much more difficult it is to do that job?

The jobs are extremely difficult. And I had heard recently from a Gallup poll, that if you look at the most challenging, stressful jobs in the United States, number one, United States president; number two, CEO of a hospital; number three, CEO of a university. And because I got this information from my pastor, number four was a pastor. That's why he wanted me to know.

But yes, they're extremely consuming. I think most people who move forward and get in these roles have a heart: a heart for change, a heart for students, a heart for society. And we're here because we really want to help contribute to the improvement of lives of the people who populate our communities on our campuses. But they're 24/7.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.