As state leaders receive annual report on Kansas higher education, here are three numbers to know

Not every street is like Wall Street.

There, occupants are never very far from a daily ticker — or metaphors of bulls and bears — measuring prosperity or decline for those in the financial industry.

But on Massachusetts Street and elsewhere in Lawrence, high finance isn’t the engine of the economy. Here, higher education is the force that makes the wheels turn.

There’s no handy daily ticker to measure that world, but once a year the state’s higher education leaders do receive a voluminous report full of numbers that anyone trying to predict future fortunes in a college town should know.

The Kansas Board of Regents this past week received its annual enrollment data report that dives into not just how many people are attending universities, community colleges and technical schools, but also who those people are, and how their tendencies have been changing over the last 10 years.

Below are three numbers any university community leader should know about the state of higher education in Kansas. But before we dive into those numbers, a warning: Beware of bears.

As we’ve reported over the last several years, the overall trends have not been positive, as the state struggles not only with enrollment numbers, but also with issues ranging from diversity to how well prepared students are to enter college.

For the most part, those trends didn’t change in this year’s report.

“A sobering report,” Regents Chair Jon Rolph said after the board received a presentation of the numbers Wednesday. “We have our work cut out for us.”

Here’s a look at three key pieces of data:

Declining enrollments

In the 2023 academic year, the total number of students enrolled in universities, community colleges, and technical schools fell to 218,189. That was a new 10-year low, and was a nearly 16% drop from 2013 totals.

The news for the state’s large, public, four-year universities was not quite as bad. Total student enrollment has fallen by nearly 6% during the last 10 years. Locally, there is a bright spot. KU grew enrollment in 2023, thanks to its largest freshman class in history. With that growth, KU has posted about a 4% growth rate over the last 10 years. KU and Wichita State are the two general universities that have been able to post growth in that period, while Emporia State, Kansas State, Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State have all posted significant declines.

Cities with community colleges are the locales that really may have worries with the numbers. Community college enrollment dropped to 91,111, a new 10-year low. The 2023 numbers are nearly 30% below 2013 totals.

Technical schools are a bright spot in the report. Those schools teach a host of trades and skills. Lawrence’s Peaslee Tech is an example of such a school, but since it is not overseen by the Regents, its numbers are not included in this data. Technical schools had total enrollment in 2023 of 17,539, which was a new 10-year high. That number is up 53% from 2013.

While the growth rate is big, it is still worth noting the number of people going to such schools is comparatively small. For every one person going to technical school, there are nearly six people going to a four-year college and about five going to a community college.

Saying no to college

In 2022 — the most recent year data is available — 43.3% of Kansas high school graduates enrolled in a public university. That was a new 10-year low, and is down from 54.1% in 2013. Kansas saw a big drop in this percentage in 2020, and thus far there have not been any signs of a rebound — at least for public schools.

The story is a little different for private universities in the state. In 2022, 5.1% of Kansas high school graduates enrolled in a private university in the state. That was up from 4.7% in 2021. It was down from a recent high of 6.6% in 2018. But longer term, private universities have been growing their share of Kansas high school graduates. In 2013, just 2.5% of Kansas high school graduates were choosing private universities.

These numbers are the lifeblood of most universities, and they are expected to get tougher in the coming years. The total number of Kansas high school graduates is set to decline in 2026 and thereafter because birthrates in 2008 and 2009 — when families were struggling in the Great Recession — fell. Fewer births 18 years ago means fewer high school graduates.

But what’s important to note is that Kansas hasn’t yet experienced that “enrollment cliff,” as university administrators call it. That makes the current numbers more troubling. If majorities of Kansas high school graduates continue to say no to higher education, and there are fewer graduates to begin with, universities and community colleges may see some significant enrollment declines.

A wild card for Kansas could be out-of-state enrollment. Kansas has classroom capacity for university students in ways that some larger states don’t have. The state’s four-year public universities have been growing their number of out-of-state students. In 2023, the universities combined had 34,529 out-of-state students, an increase of 20% from 10 years earlier.

Sagging scores

Just 19% of all Kansas graduating seniors in 2023 who took the ACT standardized test were found to be college ready in all four of the test’s academic subjects: reading, English, math and science. That’s down from 30% in 2013.

What’s more, Kansas is falling behind at a rate greater than the national average. In 2013, Kansas was 4 percentage points above the national average in terms of students who were college ready in all four subjects. Now, Kansas is two percentage points behind the national average, Regents were told.

It was noted that Kansas has had an important change in ACT policy during the last 10 years that could be impacting the numbers. During that 10-year period, the state started paying the fees for students who want to take the ACT. That may be causing more students to take the test, even if they haven’t done much to prepare for it.

But Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said focusing on that change too much might miss a bigger point.

“I would say 19% is low, regardless of how many people are taking it,” Flanders said.

Flanders also touted a strategy to Regents to improve the scores that might not be obvious to everyone. Of all the subjects to focus on, make reading the first subject targeted for improvement.

“Even in math, if you are having trouble reading, you are not going to do well in math, and you certainly aren’t going to do well in science and English,” he said. “That reading piece really does affect all subject matters.”

Regents indeed have been paying special attention to literacy efforts recently. As the Journal-World reported last month, the Regents are seeking funding for a “Kansas Blueprint on Literacy.” Among that plan’s initiatives is a program that would require every elementary teacher in Kansas to take a new set of classes to become better at teaching young students how to read.

In total, the Regents estimate they will need about $18 million next year and $108 million over the next seven years to implement that program and many other literacy-related initiatives. Flanders said the ACT test score numbers could be a good way to help residents and lawmakers see the need for such funding.

“I think it is really time when you see some of these numbers that you realize how critical it is that we do something now,” Flanders said.


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