Editorial: A thank you to KU graduates and their families

Lawrence Journal-World editorials

Congratulations to this year’s graduates of the University of Kansas.

Hopefully the graduates found Lawrence to be a welcoming community that helped them learn and grow in ways that go beyond classroom work. Creating such an environment is one of the more important tasks we have as a community.

It is difficult to overstate the importance KU has to the overall Lawrence community. KU obviously is the largest employer in the community, putting tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of Lawrence residents via payroll checks, which are spent at local businesses. The students directly support hundreds of additional businesses. Whether it be through athletics, research or any number of other accomplishments, KU is the No. 1 reason that Lawrence is known by others across the country.

One benefit that sometimes gets overlooked is the students themselves. Lawrence gets to know some talented, fascinating individuals in ways that other communities do not. Lawrence often gets to feel younger than its age because of the presence of so many residents in their early 20s. Yes, sometimes that doesn’t seem like a benefit when the music next door is blaring at 3 in the morning, but the students add so much more than they take in this community.

In fact, we need more of them. In the fall of 2008, the Lawrence and Edwards campuses of KU had 26,999 students. By the fall of 2018, enrollment at the two campuses had dropped to 24,815, a decline of about 8 percent. It is a fact that sometimes gets obscured because KU leaders often have touted growth at KU’s medical school as evidence of overall enrollment success. Given that the medical school doesn’t have a presence in Lawrence, it is understandable why local enthusiasm for that type of growth is less robust.

Enrollment at the Lawrence campus took a sharp downward turn during the Great Recession. Like other businesses, KU showed signs of bouncing back with enrollment gains in 2014, 2015 and 2016. But those gains fell far short of bringing enrollment back to its prerecession levels. More concerning is that the gains ceased altogether in 2017 and 2018. KU has become like a basketball that’s lost its air — no bounce.

The Lawrence community should consider what it can do to help KU get its bounce back. Step No. 1 may be for the community to recognize the university can use a boost. The current $20 million in budget cuts has helped some members of the general community understand KU’s predicament better, but the enrollment numbers still catch many people by surprise.

It also is easy to assume KU is going through an exciting renaissance. KU Endowment has done an excellent job in raising private funds for the university. Seemingly an even more visible sign of prosperity is all the new construction that has happened on campus in recent years. In some ways it is a very exciting time. The buildings have been great additions to the campus, but the debt that they’ve added to KU’s financial books plays a significant role in the university’s challenges.

There is not much that can be done about those decisions. Those bills will come due. But what can the Lawrence community do to help grow enrollment at KU? Should we consider marketing to prospective students as a form of economic development spending? How about marketing and recruitment efforts to top researchers, who in turn bring more students and millions in research grants? As the community plans its downtown and other areas, how central will the needs of students be in those planning processes?

All those efforts would involve complexities that will take time and strong levels of cooperation between town and gown. But there is a simpler step we all can take today: Thank a graduate, thank their families, be proud of the business that Lawrence and KU are in. We are a university community, but more broadly, we are in the business of changing lives. Not every community gets to do something so rewarding.

Best wishes — and thanks — to all those students who are beginning their next chapters today.

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