Fort Hays State University, north central Kansas Technical College and Northwest Kansas Technical College have decided to face the challenges of declining rural population and businesses struggling to find workers. All at the same time. The region school and two tech colleges have joined forces with a strategic affiliation initiative that aims to not only strengthen the institutions, but revitalize whole regions of the state. I'm opinion editor clay wire stone, and on this week's episode of the Kansas reflector podcast, a new look at higher education. Well, thank you all for being here today for the reflector Podcast. I'm pleased to welcome President TISA Mason of Fort Hays State University, President Ben sheers of Northwest Kansas Technical College, and President eric berg of north central Kansas Technical College. Thank you all for being here. It's a pleasure to be here. So let's just start with a little bit of a quick round the table question here. Just tell me in a minute or two about each of your institutions and what you aim to do?
Well, I am speaking on behalf of Fort Hays State University, we are a regional public institution. And that means two things as a regional institution. We were founded as a teaching institution. Access is part of our mission, so making sure affordable to be affordable, and provide access to the citizens. And I think the other really an important aspect of that is that we are called on to be a steward of place. And that means really a lot of engagement and hands on learning and opportunities throughout the community. This past year, we served almost 17,000 students, which is pretty remarkable for a little college out on the western prairie of Fort Hays or Hays America. And in that we had almost 9000 online students, and about 4500 students that take dual degrees from us and Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cambodia and Senegal. So we're a little mix of local home and across the globe.
Great. Inner. Yeah, my name is Eric verse, as you mentioned earlier, and I'm the president at north central Kansas Technical College. We're a two year college so we offer anything from a two year degree down to CNA or CDL license and everything in between that two year and short term. We serve Beloit, Kansas, and also Hays, Kansas. And so we're, I think the only technical college that has two campuses. So that's a distinction for sure. For us. We're very much about training people that, you know, when the pandemic hit, and people talked about essential skills, what we trained as are as essential skills, anything from nursing, welding, auto tech, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, the the hands on skills, and that's what really draws our students in. Also, like I mentioned earlier, CDL licensure and those types of things that are just be short term, we serve about 1200 students a year, that would be headcount. And we have on our two campuses between 202 150 students on each of our campuses full time students, so our largest program is nursing. Sure, we're proud of that we have a great nursing program. We're very well known for our welding program as well. But we really have a great variety of programs to offer and pull students in, not quite as far as we do have some international students that come occasionally. But generally speaking, we really have students from Kansas, from South Central and South southern Nebraska and Colorado and Missouri. But I will tell you that one of the things that we're very proud of is the students that come to us tend to stay in our area, or they go back to their hometowns, but we see a lot of people that come to Beloit or Hayes, and they set down roots there and continue to be there even after they graduate. So we feel like we're helping Kansas bring people into the state and supply them with much needed employees for the workforce.
In tears with Northwest Kansas Technical College, probably more affectionately known out on the west side of the state as Northwest tech. We are a typical kind of what you might think about with the technical college wires, pliers, keyboards, and pressure cuffs. Those are the students we serve. So a lot of hands on learning, typical of all technical education within the state of Kansas. A couple of things that kind of differentiate us a little bit within kind of the higher ed landscape. We're the only technical college that has collegiate athletics and so we are NJCAA athletic program, which has been really great for us, it's brought in a lot of students from across the state and beyond, and has created a lot of diversity on campus. So we serve overall about 800 full time, part time students, as well as some online. And we are about three or 4% from being a majority minority institution, which is somewhat surprising when you think about what you might expect in rural Northwest Kansas. And so it's been really great for the community really great for the college. And so kind of, you know, as well, I'll probably stop there. Sorry. Okay, well, no, that's great, my foster.
That's just what, just what I was looking for. But you all are here today together, because you're also kind of teaming up with an affiliation initiative. So tell me a little bit about that. Please, and let's start with you.
We're very excited. This dream McCain, actually a couple years back, then reached out to me and Eric and I had already had a strong partnership. And maybe at some point, you want to talk a little bit about the gateway program. And so we get together and our magnetic north has been really understanding how we can better serve rural communities. It's something that we're all are doing now. But we're really concerned with the shrinkage in the demographics out west, and in the rural communities. Definitely the college age going market also declining. And we know to have a strong state, we have to have all of the state be strong. And so we've talked about the fact that we think we could do be stronger together, and helping to help students have a better educational experience with more variety and options at different locations. help businesses grow, deepen their hiring, bench and get more employees, and as a result, make our community stronger. It's going to take a lot of efforts. This is just one of them. But we think is essential for us to get together and work very thoughtfully and strategically, to make education more accessible through a variety of means to keep people in rural communities in Kansas.
And North Central and NC K tech. We really have partnered with Fort Hays, well, really even before President Mason, I were president at our institutions. So it really started with our predecessors with the gateway program, which was established, I believe, Dr. Mason, at that time was the Vice President of Student Services. So she was involved in the creation of this as well, but our students can live on foreign Hayes's campus, their tiger card carrying, and what that means is that they can go to the health services, they can go to the athletic games, they can go to the library, all of those same amenities. Instead of us recreating and having to pay for those on our campus. We just partnered together and our students get to enjoy all the amenities that a university student has, but yet they go to go to class across town, unless you're in the welding program, and it's right there on Fort Hayes's campus. We're in the Center for Applied tight technology and sciences there. So we've already had a great partnership. And we just see this as a natural progression and evolution of that partnership. We're happy to bring Northwest tech in with this as well. And really, we think that, you know, we can better serve all of our communities in North Central and Northwestern Kansas, by working together. And I know Ben will tell a story he always tell stories. He'll he'll tell you about the rope. Take it away, then. So yeah, I
think, you know, as we look at particularly Northwest Kansas, you know, we're our campus is located in Goodland, with a little outreach location in kwinter, Kansas, little bitty community right on i 70. But we're pretty good distance out west or two hours beyond Hayes, right over on the Colorado border, just just a handful of miles from Colorado. And as we think about kind of what's happening within rural populations within Kansas, and in looking at what business and industry needs within particularly rural communities, and particularly in the western half of the state. We've all operated in the past in our in our pockets in the areas in which we're comfortable with and that we know how we operate in the northwest corner with our local community, a few outreach things that we do within the area. But as we began to have this conversation around the affiliation, really it came down to SST to set us that's our true north, which is how can we serve students better? Could that be you know, the additional expanded opportunities for transfer can that be working with the University for students that may want to add additional technical hours on to the degree pathways that they're on? You know, we all three have students as every higher education institution has that It began at our institutions, but maybe don't make it to the finish line. So how do we capture those students recapture those students back in the pipeline to try to get them some kind of a credential that makes them workforce ready. There's just a lot of creative things that we can do. And as Eric was teasing me just a minute ago, you know, we we in the past, and this is a Kansas thing, right? This is Kansas thing where we have this kind of singularity of mind where we want to operate as our own, pull us or pull yourselves up by the bootstraps, get get ready to work, and we'll take care of things. And we often times do it in a silo, which then creates additional challenges. So we feel that, you know, having a rope with three strands, is much stronger than having a rope with a single strand. And so really, what we're trying to do is break down the way that higher education has worked in the state of Kansas for the last 100 years, do things differently, and hopefully see some really incredible outcomes where we're serving our business and industry. And really more than anything else, our rural communities, which has been experiencing population decline. And so I'm sure we'll get into some of that in a little, little bit greater detail. They need us to think differently, they need us to operate differently, in order for us to be able to get students graduated with skills and into their workforce create stickiness, so they're staying in western Kansas, and drawing them in from out of state to fulfill some of the workforce needs.
We also hope that this will be something that will be a model that others will look at. I mean, as he said, it's kind of the mentality, you just find a way to do it with what you've got. It's a Kansas mentality. But we don't always look to our partners and say, hey, what can we do here, and hopefully, people will look and see what we're doing. And we'll see other businesses, other schools, other whatever, organizations looking to partner and pull things together so that we can go, Hey, we were fighting things greater than each other. We're, you know, we're not competitors. We're trying to fight against the forces that are working against us. And
as Eric often points out, you know, right now, there's a lot of mergers and affiliations across higher ed across the nation. What makes us a little unique is that we're all coming from a position of strength. And so we don't have to do this. And as Ben says, Do you want to be in the driver's seat? Or do you want to be in the truck? And we want to be in the driver's seat as we move forward? And really, with a heart for our for rural America?
No. I'm just curious when you're talking about affiliation. Eric, you were talking about kind of some facility stuff. Then you were talking about ways in which kind of credits are transferred and the like, what other kind of collaborative efforts are you looking at as part of this, this affiliation work?
So one of the areas, we're kind of focused in really early here on about three distinct areas, because you know, the best way to do an elephant right piece at a time. And so we're taking very strategic steps throughout this affiliation, some of this is going to be back end work that we're doing with alignment, getting our registrar's talking together, getting our IT staff talking together, you know, you would think with three individual institutions that we might have some overlap, and IT services we don't. And so that's a challenge we have to overcome. So we have to begin those conversations. And that's part of this affiliation process. And we have teams already working on those. But from an academic standpoint, we're focused right now on agriculture, construction, and healthcare. Those are the three big things as we look across kind of the western Kansas landscape. Those are low hanging fruit, because those are certainly the big areas that we hear a lot of feedback from communities and from industry partners, where they have some workforce needs and heavens knows that we need houses all across the state. So those are the areas we're focused right now on the biggest piece, we have what we call affiliation teams, initiative, teams, ATS, and those teams pull together individuals from each of the three institutions, and probably more notably, industry partners. And so people from out in the communities out in industry, that are coming to the table, sitting down with our faculty, and working together collaboratively on how do we rethink what historically we've all done individually. So how can we get those industry inputs and insights, as well as our faculty members who all have different perspectives, in the same room sitting down and working through that? So, you know, one really interesting case in point is when we talk about agriculture, western Kansas, it's the significant driver, economical driver in the western half of the state, maybe arguably, across the state. And so we all do ag a little differently. At each of our three institutions. We have a lot that we can learn from the university faculty on what they're doing with agronomy and animal sciences and crop sciences. We specialize in ag tech. And so there may be some pieces where we have some cross culture that we develop out of this where we have some work we could do within the Ag tech space with the university. So that's just one of the examples that we can look at.
And our faculty are incredibly excited about this. They are loving the conversations. And I think the other thing thing about the affiliation teams that we're setting up is we're doing it very incrementally as Ben stated, I see this as a long term process. So not only will we be continuing to add a couple every year, more of both academic and administrative processes, and we'll keep rolling them out. But there's really no reason with industry changing so rapidly that anybody will ever complete their work. Right? You should be constantly evolving and becoming exciting and doing it collectively,
I think to what I'm really excited about. And I said this yesterday, and now I'll be recorded. So I've gotta say it a little bit more carefully. But you know, when you I've been married, fortunately, my wife has been crazy enough to stay with me for 27 years. But but the first day when I said I do, and she said, I do, I don't think we had any idea what it would look like 27 years later. And I think the same thing about this partnership, I think we know, we have a vision for what it can be just like I had a vision as a young groom on that altar. But I think as it evolves over time, it's going to be incredible how much better it really is, than even what we can imagine starting into it as we get to know one another as we get to realize the strengths that we each we all bring, and the opportunities that we can all afford to one another. Eric likes out and analogies
and stories to.
You know, I just want to focus a little a little bit, you know, one of the things that you all mentioned, and, you know, Eric, and Ben and I were talking about this a little bit teaser before you before you arrive, just the, you know, the challenges of rural communities, the challenges of western Kansas, you know, sometimes defend, you know, defined as you know, anything west of Topeka, frankly. But, but talk a little bit about that just about I think, you know, you all talk about a sense of place, I think, and how that what that means to you and what that means to your institutions?
Well, I know we talked about, you know, the, the there's less and less, I mean, we know that rural Kansas, western Kansas is shrinking currently, I mean, that's not a secret, you can see that in census data and everything else and, and yet, the importance of what is happening out there is not diminished the agriculture part of our state, and it's a great way of life, there are so many people that are proud, their rule by choice, you might hear them say, and so you know, we really want to help continue that way of life, we would love to be so bold as to say we'd like to reverse the population trend, and see that stabilize and maybe even grow, if we can expose more people to that if we can create more opportunity for the people that already understand what's out in western Kansas and, and the people in Beloit don't consider themselves western Kansas, north central and western Kansas, but also that they that we can hopefully retain some of those people because we offer so much that they really don't need to go anywhere else. And then hopefully we can attract some people from outside the state or other parts of the state to help introduce them to the great things that are happening in western Kansas.
I was in Phillipsburg this morning, talking to a reporter there. We were there two years ago, and he was telling us a lot of sad stories about a restaurant that was very popular in Phillipsburg. But the owners were aging and so they ended up just closing down they didn't have a succession plan. And so one of the things we did after that is we got with the Small Business Development Center housed out of Fort Hays State University. And we wrote up a whole succession plan and started sending it out to some of the media things as well as trying to make contacts with people to help them keep those businesses. So how do we get with aging businesses, the next generation involved and in those communities and starting there on families, and really helping people thrive. He's told another example of a couple that came in, renovated this building had a apartment on the second floor and a thriving beer, business and restaurant. And it was so popular automatically, and then somebody gets sick and it just gets shut down. And so it's really difficult with some of these economic pressures and demographics and aging populations.
But, you know, you choose a, you really hit on something else that that I'm interested in, too, which is the way in which it's not just a connection with these communities. It's also with these local businesses with local, you know, families who run, you know, a farm, they run small businesses and the like. And I think all of you in greater or lesser extents are involved in kind of that business education dialog. So tell me a little bit about what you've been hearing from, you know, hearing from from businesses as well, it really sounds like you see this as a collaborative opportunity.
Without a doubt, the most consistent thing we hear from business partners across, honestly, across the entire state is we need more people. There's no surprise in that, you know, there's a lot of workforce pressure right now. And, you know, that doesn't seem to be something that's turning around quickly. Along those same lines. I mean, I think there are some realities we have to face as a state. And I think sometimes it's challenging to do that. And that is that our state is not even producing enough individuals to meet replacement rate. In a matter of fact, out of the 50 states in the country, only one is it's one of the Dakotas, I think. And so replacement rates on population within the country, are not going in the right direction, you start looking back at historical data, you know, most of the communities across rural communities across the state of Kansas, the height of their population was in the 1970s. And so over the last 50 years, most rural communities in the state of Kansas have been on a population decline. So we have to say, and we have to look at them and say, Okay, well 2008 2009 rolls along, and you've got the Great Recession, people slow down having kids. When is that population supposed to hit higher education? About 2028 2029. And so across the country, we're anticipating right now, forecasters are saying there's going to be about a 15% reduction in the college going right. So what kind of a soup does that create for business and industry, going down the road? A very challenging one, not only just for us, but also for, you know, training students to be ready to go into those workforce. So together, try in our case, we can handle well, we can handle, which is the work that we're doing in western Kansas. So recruiting students working together, providing opportunity, providing pathway, and most importantly, connecting them with employers who are hungry, and ready for the begin as soon as they graduate.
You know, it's fascinating you say that, because I think sometimes there's this notion, and, you know, I've been kind of asking questions like this, too, that, you know, the rural areas have kind of entirely separate challenges from more urban areas. But in some ways, that's not necessarily true. Like I live in Lawrence, which, you know, fairly vibrant, quote, unquote, community. And yet, the school system there is grappling with exactly the thing that you're talking about, which is there are fewer kids coming in, there's fewer, I mean, they're seeing it in the elementary schools now, elementary and middle schools, you know, enroll, you know, and that's, it's a challenge for everyone, really. So, but
I had two separate thoughts. One is, one of the things that we focus on with access is that it's not just traditional age students. So although we're concerned about those demographics, at Fort Hays, we deal with early college with our camps program starting in their junior year of high school, all the way up to citizens, senior citizens. And one of the things that we're working on is also about professional continuing ed. So whether it's through our management development center that goes out and does workshops, or doing some of that upskilling and rescaling within the workforce and partnership with business and industry, which brings it back to my first thought was that when we announced the affiliation together in January, with the signing of the legislation, our phone started ringing with industry saying we want to be a part of it. And so as we started these affiliation teams, we made the commitment that every affiliation team would have at least one or two industry partners sitting at the table. And that has been easy to fulfill, because everybody wants to be part of this with the concern of getting employees and and how to keep the bench deep.
Well, I mean, it must be, you know, on one hand, it must be very exciting. But also, you know, it's it's a it's a big challenge, too. Yeah,
it definitely is. I know that. You know, I think all of us could talk about capacity, you know, as we talk about, well, all these businesses that are having workforce challenges, we face them ourselves. It's not that we're immune to those and so hiring people and then trying to keep them so that they have, well, it's never wrong to have enough to do it's not too much to do that. They decide they don't want to do it anymore. And so it's a it's a real challenge, but it's something that's exciting for people too. It's something that's, that's new, I think people see that, you know, once we do get to two further down the road and we understand each other, there's going to be ways that we can share the load to help one another out. I do think and we're very careful to tell people this is not about growing enrollment necessarily, and it's not about saving money or getting more revenue. But we do think that all those things are going to happen eventually as we as we go through the real focus is on helping students helping businesses and helping our communities but, but we know that as we work Together, we're gonna see opportunities for us to be efficient in a lot of different areas.
And this is this gets to the point, Jason that you were saying, which is this is not something that's being forced upon you, this is something that you all are choosing to do, which really makes it a much different makes the vibe, a much different show than say, yes. So you, you, you did mention. Eric, I think you're talking about enrollments. So, I mean, that's kind of a, you know, the big question always in higher ed, what kind of trends are you all seeing with enrollment numbers?
Well, we had 19 consecutive years of growth prior to the pandemic, and we have been trending down a little bit. Since the pandemic, this fall, we had less than 1% down. But we saw trends up we have, we were up in Kansas served, we are up in our freshman we were up on on campus, housing contracts, we are up on our retention. So we feel like we're seeing some really good signs. But I think consecutive years at some point, you probably have to reset if there's a pandemic or not. But we're really feeling good about our enrollment, we represent all 105 Kansas counties, all 50 states, 47 countries in every branch of the military and our student body.
Yeah, our enrollment at NC K Tech, I think this year was down 4.2%. So not not huge, but a little bit, not not what we want, we were up 12% Last year, you know, so kind of, as DISA says, you know, you expect the ebbs and flows to come through. So certainly, we're in a, you know, when your demographic around you is shrinking, to stay even as a challenge even of itself. And so we've been successfully growing in many cases, and we've been retaining students. And we've been graduating students, I know Ben and I's institutions, both are very proud of our graduation rates, and who were able to churn out the success there. So we continue to look for ways to grow enrollment. And to bring more people to it. Technical Education is very popular, people are really understanding how relevant it is, it's a quick way to get to work. And sometimes businesses are hiring students before they even come to us, which is, you know, I understand the challenge that they're facing and how desperate they can be. But sometimes that's not the best for the student, when you're trying to set them up for a career and not just a job. So we try to talk to students and families about that as well, so that they understand the choices that they're making. But the other thing about education that I think we have to sometimes break the the mindset on is, you know, for so many people, they think of it in a linear fashion. You know, you graduate from high school, you go to college, and we see a lot of students as resumes I mentioned earlier, that will come to us as non traditional students, they'll they'll go out and work a little bit and decide they want to retool, decided that they want to get higher the skill level so that they can move into the management side of the business, or whatever. And the great thing is that we all offer those opportunities, we can even offer some of those opportunities online that makes it much more convenient for students. So there's just a lot of ways that we can still capture enrollment, even if it's not that traditional, as we anticipate that cliff that been described earlier. Yeah,
Northwest tech, you know, we are this last year, this year, we're currently up about 8% or so. Which has been great, because I'll tell you, like every other higher education institution in the country in COVID hit, you know, it hit us right in the knees. It's we've been crawling out of that. And so we were excited to see that kind of growth this year. You know, we've been focused pretty heavily on expanding our early college options. So working with high school juniors and seniors to get them a post secondary credential, while they're still in high school, which really dovetails nicely with KSDE. And the work that they're trying to do to get high school students to have a credential either during or shortly after graduation. So that's been really helpful. And kind of separate to Eric's points on these as well. I think, you know, the exciting piece of this affiliation that really presents us some opportunities is if you think about within the world of construction, Eric and I both have carpentry and construction programs. And the university also has a construction management program. So as we have, you know, young men and women across the region that are looking to get into the construction sciences, being able to get their hands on skills developed learning how to frame learning how to paint learning how to, you know, fill those seams on the walls, as those are being built, to then take those skills and for those students that are interested in it, continue on to university, continue their education, get into the construction management piece of it. So that long term, we're building more home builders within the region. And I think that's really a great piece to helping us with some of the housing needs across the state. So that's one example. Sure, well,
I mean, everything connects with everything else, especially when you're when you're We're talking about regions that have, you know, places that have needs like that. So we could go on forever. It sounds like, it seems like but I did want to talk a little bit about, about money about state funding here, kind of to close this out. So obviously, the amount that the state allocates for higher education, always a concern, especially for folks in higher education. So what of your experience has been with that? What would you really like for lawmakers to be thinking about as they head into this next session?
Well, first of all, you know, resources are always tight no matter what. But I would like to just say thank you to the legislators, because they have invested in in higher education, the past couple of sessions pretty significantly. It doesn't mean we don't have more needs that we will, will advocate for. And that's our responsibility is to advocate for those needs. And there are a lot of other issues that the legislators are going to need to address as well. So I'm respectful of the difficult challenge they have, I'm grateful that they step up to serve. I think that's a big deal. And I'm extremely grateful for the support, they've continued to give higher education. So I'll start with that.
Actually, I would echo those sentiments we were fortunate last year, especially in the legislative session for them to come to the table and, and go to bat for technical education and technical colleges. And so we are excited about what they did. It was one year, and we really one year is not going to fix the deficiencies that we've been facing for years, actually, in 2000, I think it was 13. It was around the time that they did a cost model is that right bins around that area. And we were underfunded in that cost model for about eight to 10 years. And so we finally that were fully funded with the cost model. Now they're putting some money in to help us, we just need more to help us out. Because we do see some growth happening. As I mentioned, my institution lost some students this year, but we grew 12% Last year, there's certainly interest in what we're doing. But we've got to be able to be able to afford technical education is not cheap. We teach expensive things. And we have a lot of industry partners that have already stepped to the table and brought a lot of resources to help with that. But they can't do it all they're facing struggles as well. And so really, it's a great investment. I always like to mention this, too, that the return that that people get, I was looking at our economic study again yesterday. And we for every dollar that's invested, we return I believe it's $13. So I mean, it's a it's not costing taxpayers, it's an investment that taxpayers are making in our future as a state.
You know, I think, as has already been said to, you know, I'll say this, I do not envy the job of the legislators who have to figure out how to, to spread around and address the needs across the state. I don't envy it, but I appreciate it. And as Dr. Mason said, they're beginning to you know, the last couple legislative legislative sessions in particular, we've seen some significant focus on what we call the tear, the non tiered funding models that we use in the two year colleges were funded a little differently than universities are. But a significant effort by legislators to get that model fixed, like Eric was talking about, get it fully funded to the point where we can operate as we need to be able to operate. Instead of sometimes the challenge of trying to figure out how to do things on a shoestring budget, while industry demands are incredibly, incredibly high. So we have definitely appreciated, you know, legislative support, there was some additional funding, one time funding, as Eric mentioned, that came in this last year, with some really good expectations. And I think that's a piece to that, you know, that doesn't, doesn't scare us away. It is one time money. And so we do hope to see keep the key, the expectations, we'll keep rolling with that we're our job is to output students, and give them skills and get them out in industry. We'll hang on to that. But we do hope those kinds of investments, stick around because they truly are that, you know, we're moving the needle across higher education in the state. And those funds are important for us to be able to do as a sector
we've really contributed a lot to the economy. And I think that that's what legislators are seeing too. And we're more than happy for them to hold us accountable for that because we know that we can perform. One
of the things that we'll be talking to legislators about is some funding for an expansion of our nursing program. Our nursing program is extraordinary. And we focus specifically on rural nursing, because it's different than if you're in a urban facility with all kinds of specialist so we have to train differently. We just went through accreditation for both our Bachelor of Science in Nursing nursing as well as our doctorate in nursing practice with flying colors, our DNP or doctorate in nursing practice 100% pass rate on licensure. We're headed for hopefully 100% on our BSN. But it's been very, very high for many years. So this summer, our faculty went to the Kansas Board of Nursing and they increased our quota from 65 students to 90 students. So we're going to need some help with some facility expansion, so that we can serve the students we already have a waiting list. We have had no problem hiring faculty. And so investing a little bit more in a nursing program is going to be one of our major requests this year.
Well, thank you so much to presidents Mason shears, and Burks, thank you so much for coming to the reflector podcast. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thank You