Saturday Column: Post-secondary education not just a numbers game

A news report earlier this week cited a Georgetown University study that suggested Kansas, by one means or another, needs to have approximately 60 percent of its workforce-age population holding post-secondary degrees or training credentials by 2020 if the state hopes to keep up with its workforce demands.

As of 2012, the state’s higher education rate was 52 percent.

In response to this situation, Kansas Board of Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders reportedly told the regents, “We know we’re going to have to attract students back that have had some college and no degree. We’re not going to be able to do it just on high school students and graduates alone.”

To meet the 60 percent goal by 2020, Kansans reportedly needs to complete about 53,000 credentials per year. Kansas is said to have hit its targets the past two years but fell about 2,000 short of the 42,251 degrees and credentials it needed in 2015 to stay on course.

According to those closely associated with the 2020 project, more effective efforts will be needed to attract non-traditional students and students of color. There also is the challenge of how to retain students.

Regents have attempted to devise a method to raise the rate of students who return to their schools after the first year by 10 percent, but, since 2011, this figure is only 3 percent.

Flanders said, “If we want to reach 10 percentage points, we’re going to have to have more aggressive improvement.”

Maybe the 60 percent target is realistic and critical, and it’s possible an even higher percentage will be needed in the coming years to attract high-grade industry and business to the state.

What is known is that Kansas University and other state institutions are trying to attract more students of all kinds. KU has entered into a contract with a firm to attract talented undergraduate students from Europe and has initiated programs to attract a more diverse enrollment.

Likewise, KU has made a major effort to attract truly outstanding researchers and teachers with national and international reputations who should attract outstanding students and raise the academic reputation of the university.

It is important to point out that the 2020 goal of 60 percent covers the post-secondary education waterfront, including degree and certificate programs at both public and private technical schools, community colleges and four-year universities.

This writer’s concern is that the pressure on state universities, particularly a flagship research institution such as KU, to increase the number of diplomas they award should not cause the schools to turn into diploma factories.

Academic requirements should not be lowered or watered down to produce a greater number of graduates. If KU is to excel and elevate its academic excellence and raise its national reputation, that will be achieved through a rigorous and challenging academic environment rather than by trying to win a contest for its number of graduates.

Some way needs to be figured out to encourage more young men and women to seek a post-high school certificate or degree, primarily for their own benefit but also for the betterment and future of the state. At the same time, there should be no effort to dumb down the academic requirements at a university or lessen the training and requirements at vocational and technical schools.

It stands to reason that achieving the goal of 60 percent of the post-secondary work force having a degree or certificate will require a team effort that starts at primary school and goes through post-secondary schools with the support of the public, university and trade school leaders, the governor and state legislators.

It’s a worthy goal, but excellence and standards should not be compromised to achieve the 60 percent goal. Diplomas and certificates must retain their validity and relevance.