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Growing better by degrees





With a university and regional medical center in its midst, it might not be surprising Ellis County has a large number of residents with a college degree.

However, according to U.S. Census figures, the number has grown significantly since 1970, according to information from the Daily Yonder, an online news publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies.

In 1970, 14.8 percent of those older than 25 years in Ellis County had college degrees. By 2010, the number was 33.6 percent -- well above the national 27.9 percent and the state's 29.3 percent.

Fort Hays State University Provost Larry Gould said there could be a number of reasons for Ellis County to be above average.

"More and more, the baccalaureate degree, just nationwide, is as essential today as a high school degree was in 1970 or 1960. Technology provides access in a way that had not been provided 25, 30 years ago. We find that in the Virtual College, nationwide not just in Ellis County. Whether I'm 33 years old or I'm 53 years old ... I have an opportunity now that I didn't have before. I'm a little more mature, I'm a little more committed. I'm going after my degree whether it's an associate degree, a credential or a baccalaureate degree."

FHSU also is affordable and accessible to people in Ellis County, he said.

"A lot of the students, if they like the town, they may try to find a way to stay," said Aaron White, executive director of the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development.

"There's been a large number of our graduates who would prefer to stay in Ellis County because they like Hays," said Dan Rice, FHSU director of career services. "They've developed a social life, friends, and they're comfortable here."

Ellis County also provides regional services as well as retail shopping and transportation.

"We are a regional economy in Ellis County," Gould said. "We're not just a county economy or a Hays economy. We draw people from a wide variety of places.

"People are finding that education is the way to make that happen in terms of small business and other kinds of opportunities," Gould added.

Hays Medical Center requires a large staff with a variety of degrees and technical backgrounds, and High Plains Mental Health Center staff "run the gamut from high school diplomas to master's degrees. They also will absorb a number of professional personnel," White said.

Many people start commuting to work in Hays from smaller towns, but "find themselves moving here to make it more convenient to get to work and to where they do their shopping," he said.

Though North Central Kansas Technical College graduates don't have bachelor's degrees, they contribute to the educated and skilled workforce.

"You're talking about students coming out with two-year degrees in tech fields -- construction, welding, machine technology, some mechanics. These are skills that are used heavily within the oil industry, and other industries within the area," White said.

Despite the growth, though, with the low unemployment rate in Ellis County, the labor force is still too small, Gould said.

"Things are moving in the right direction for Ellis County," he said. "We're going to be a driver for much of the region for quite some time."