Hays — Debbie Mercer believes the economy at least has something to do with the steady increase of students enrolling in education programs at Fort Hays State University.
Enrollment is up 50 percent in undergraduate programs and 57 percent in graduate programs in the College of Education and Technology in the last four years, according to Mercer, the college’s dean.
“When times are tough, many people turn to programs such as education because they tend to be very stable,” she said.
She also attributes the growth to the initiatives FHSU has developed this decade.
“We’ve seen our most substantial growth in transfer students,” Mercer said, noting enrollment has increased 60 percent among that population.
FHSU has Two-Plus-Two agreements with five community colleges across the state, and more are in the works. The agreements allow students pursuing elementary education and early childhood education degrees to get a jump start on their FHSU degree while still attending a two-year school.
“It’s helped with the recruitment because they know they’re not going to lose any courses when they come to Fort Hays,” said Germaine Taggart, chairwoman of the education department.
The number of non-traditional students returning to school has increased, too.
“We have more students that are working full-time, are parents, are productive community members, that are taking some hours and progressing toward their teaching degree,” Mercer said.
FHSU’s Transition-to-Teaching program also is at an all-time high, with 181 students teaching in classrooms while they are finishing their degrees.
The college’s newest program -- early childhood education -- began in January 2008, and Taggart said the numbers are staggering.
“We’re closing in on 240 students already,” Taggart said. “Some of them are currently working in day cares and head starts, others are just interested in the early childhood.”
Taggart said teachers who already are licensed are returning for the early childhood classes and additional certification.
Two years ago, the education department was serving less than 500 students, but Taggart said primarily because of the expansion of online offerings, her department now is serving about 1,100 students.
A few years ago, state officials feared a significant teacher shortage because of impending retirements and fewer college graduates than those expected to retire from the field. Although some said that shortage has subsided, Taggart disagrees.
“I think the shortage is still there. People just aren’t able to hire,” she said in regards to state budget cuts affecting school districts.
FHSU maintains a 99 percent placement rate for graduates, and Mercer said there still is demand for science, math, foreign language and special education teachers.
“Some of our most substantial growth in our graduate program is in direct market response to the need in special education,” Mercer said.
The enrollment growth, which has been encouraged by FHSU President Edward H. Hammond as a way to reduce the effect of state budget cuts, could have repercussions.
“At the same time, we’re going to be managing a budget-reduction process, we’re going to have to reinvest in resources to respond to our growth,” Hammond said during a university forum last week.
Mercer said adding two positions in these economic times would alleviate some of the workload for existing professors in the education department. However, she would love to have four additional faculty members.
“It isn’t just a one-year growth,” Mercer said. “We’ve really seen substantial, sustained growth over a period of time.”