When enrollment figures for Kansas Board of Regents universities were released last week, Kansas University showed a record high enrollment, but even the state's largest university didn't compete with Fort Hays State University in terms of enrollment increases.
Fort Hays, the state's fourth-largest university, had the largest increase in the regents system this fall. The school's enrollment rose by 981 students, an increase of about 15 percent. A total of 7,373 students were enrolled at Fort Hays for the fall semester.
But although Fort Hays is known for serving students in western Kansas, it reached far outside the state's borders to attract a large number of its new students. The school, for some time, has been expanding its "distance learning" program, which allows students to pursue degrees through classes on the Internet. The program has been popular not only with Kansas students who find it difficult to commute to Hays for classes but also with a large number of students for whom such a commute would be impossible.
Fort Hays, for instance, offers degree programs to students serving overseas in the military. Even more interesting, however, is the connection Fort Hays has made with China, where there aren't enough universities to meet the demand for students who want to seek degrees.
Of the school's 981 new students, 765 are students in the Fort Hays "Virtual College." The school's enrollment from students involved in dual-credit courses at two Chinese universities more than doubled from 395 students last fall to 850 this year.
That means 11.5 percent of the student body at Fort Hays State University is Chinese students who may never set foot in Hays. Is that a good thing for the university and for the state?
Extending educational opportunities by putting classes on the Internet has many advantages for Kansas residents who want to further their education but can't attend classes on a university campus. In order to make this kind of distance learning viable, Fort Hays officials say, they need numbers. Attracting Chinese students for online programs makes it economically possible to offer those programs to students closer to home.
How does this strategy fit with the state's mission for Fort Hays State? It seems the primary goal of the only state university in the western half of the state should be to meet local and regional needs, not educate students halfway around the world.
Fort Hays is doing a good job of keeping the cost of education down, increasing tuition only 5 percent this year, much less than increases at the state's larger schools. Perhaps collecting out-of-state tuition from students in the Virtual College will subsidize the cost of educating Kansas students at Fort Hays.
But even Fort Hays officials say there are benefits to bringing students to campus for their college experience. Internet classes may be an acceptable option for some students, but universities must be careful not to devalue their degrees by making it too easy to obtain one.
The Fort Hays Virtual College gets points for innovation, but it also raises issues that state higher education officials will have to consider as they venture further into distance learning programs.