TOPEKA — Kansas will need to do a better job of attracting underrepresented and nontraditional student populations to college campuses if it hopes to meet its long-term goals for higher education achievement and economic competitiveness, a top education official says.
For the first time, Kansas missed its annual target for increasing the number of students who earn post-secondary degrees and credentials. The targets are part of a long-term effort the Kansas Board of Regents say is needed to keep up with changes in the economy.
“We know we’re going to have to attract students back that had some college and no degree,” board President and CEO Blake Flanders said. “We’re not going to be able to do it on just high school students and graduates alone.”
Flanders said Kansas wants to “lift all boats” by seeking not just to increase graduation rates — which could theoretically be easy to do, for example, by simply tightening admissions requirements enough to exclude a lot more students — but also to help more students achieve their post-secondary aspirations.
His comments came Wednesday, as he delivered an annual update on the topic to the Board of Regents.
Kansas’ plan — called Foresight 2020 — is for 60 percent of working-age Kansans to have post-secondary credentials by 2020. That goal is based on a Georgetown University study that suggested a little less than two-thirds of Kansans would need post-secondary credentials by then in order to keep up with workforce demand. As of 2012, Kansas’ higher education rate was 52 percent.
To reach 60 percent, the Board of Regents said Kansans will need to be completing approximately 53,000 credentials per year by the end of the decade. That count only includes initial attainment, meaning students earning a bachelor’s degree or nursing assistant certification count, for example, but someone finishing a doctorate doesn’t.
The past two years, Kansas hit its targets. To remain on pace, an estimated 42,251 degrees and credentials were needed in 2015, but public and private institutions issued approximately 2,000 fewer than that.
Flanders noted the recession was followed by an increase in enrollment, particularly at community colleges. That growth likely was related to more people going to school because of the weak job market. In recent years, enrollment has slid at many of the state’s 32 public higher education institutions — including two-year and four-year schools — which partly could be an indicator of people returning to work.
Yet it also is clear Kansas colleges and universities aren’t drawing enough students of color. Though 11.3 percent of Kansans are Hispanic, this ethnicity makes up just 7.2 percent of students at state universities and 9.2 percent across Kansas’ public higher education institutions as a whole. Blacks also are underrepresented at state universities — by 0.7 percentage points — but not in the post-secondary system as a whole.
At the same time, Kansas institutions aren’t seeing strong enough progress on retaining students. The regents have been hoping to raise the rate of students who return after their first year by 10 percentage points. Since 2011, it has increased by 3 percent.
“If we want to reach 10 percentage points,” Flanders said, “we’re going to have to have more aggressive improvement.”
But he also expressed hope that institutions are aware of the problem and have started implementing initiatives to tackle it.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “But we’re hopeful that some of those strategies are going to begin to yield return.”