TOPEKA — Though it is located in sparsely populated western Kansas, Fort Hays State University is reaching across the state and around the world.
Those efforts seem to be paying off in a big way.
One of six state of Kansas regents universities, Fort Hays State just saw its 18th consecutive record fall enrollment.
According to university officials, Fort Hays State has 9,473 full-time equivalent students for the fall 2018 semester. Additionally, it has 7,005 “virtual” students who take classes online. And it has another 4,007 students enrolled at two locations in China.
The total headcount for the fall 2018 semester was 15,523 students, an increase of 423, or slightly more than 2.8 percent, from the fall 2017 headcount of 15,100.
Those numbers represent 4,511 on-campus students.
Briggs, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fort Hays State, visited Topeka on Tuesday as part of a four-day, 12-city, 31-location whirlwind trip across Kansas.
He was joined on the trip by two other Fort Hays State officials, Kelsey Stremel, assistant director of digital marketing, and Debra Prideaux, executive director of alumni and governmental relations.
The three were planning to meet with state lawmakers, school officials and alumni groups in cities including Hutchinson, Wichita, Salina, Phillipsburg, Clay Center, Great Bend, Kansas City and Topeka.
Fort Hays State University President Tisa Mason originally had been scheduled to make the trip but was unable to come because she wasn’t feeling well.
Though pleased to see enrollment numbers on the rise, Briggs said the main focus at Fort Hays State is on providing students with opportunities to engage in educational opportunities that will serve them well in their post-graduate careers.
“We think certainly Ford Hays State University is more than just about the numbers,” Briggs said, “but I think our enrollment really does tell a big story about our ability to meet our goals of being accessible and providing tremendous opportunity for our students.”
Of the more than 15,000 students enrolled at Fort Hays State this semester, better than 8,000 are Kansas residents, university officials said.
“There’s been a constant increase in the number of Kansans that we serve,” Briggs said. “We’ve had over a 10 percent increase in the last 10 years, so we’re really proud of that, because that’s really central to our mission. Many of those Kansans are part-time, working professionals throughout the state and are enrolled in a variety of our online programs, as well as our on-campus programs.”
Briggs said many Fort Hays State students from western Kansas communities return to their small towns or rural areas after graduation, serving in capacities such as education, health care, business and agriculture.
Like other public colleges and universities in Kansas, Fort Hays State has been operating without a budget increase from the state for a number of years.
“The state funding has been flat over the years,” Briggs said. “We actually have less state funding than we had in 2009. One of the primary goals of the board of regents is to restore the base funding model back to previous levels, and that’s been a challenge. So we’re using about the same funds from the state that we’ve had for the last 10 years.”
Briggs said he was hoping better funding days were ahead.
Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is set to take office in January. Additionally, an infusion of some $900 million in the state’s budget was announced this past week. There has been no indication, however, how those funds will be allocated.
“We hope that when we talk about funding education, and we’re certainly supportive of funding education, that we think of education as not just K-through-12 but K-through-20 -- K-12 plus higher education,” Briggs said. “As we look to advance ourselves as a state, education is a critical piece to that, and post-secondary education is the pathway to economic independence.
“So it’s beyond the K-12 perspective. Being able to ensure that we’re getting funding for our post-secondary education programs is extremely important, and we’re really hopeful with the new governor and as the legislative session starts that we’ll see higher education as being an integral part of moving Kansas forward.”
In spite of the funding plateau, he said, Fort Hays State has continued to grow both its campus and its footprint across the state thanks in no small part to enrollment increases, and added revenue from tuition, every year.
University officials said the 2018 fall semester marked the fourth-largest on-campus freshman class in the history of Fort Hays State with 948 students. The number of transfer students also increased for Fort Hays State this year, bucking a nationwide trend.
Briggs said about 16 percent of the incoming freshman class was composed of Hispanic students. He noted the university has reached out to the growing Hispanic population in southwest Kansas over the past few years, including offering a program in the summer that brings high school sophomores and juniors onto campus for a week.
The university’s growth can be attributed to several factors, Briggs said, including a low tuition cost -- on-campus students from Kansas pay $171 per credit hour -- and the ease of transferring credits from area community colleges and other universities.
Advancements in a variety of academic offerings, including new facilities on campus and support to online students, also have helped the university’s growth, he said.
Student retention also has been a major factor at continued growth at Fort Hays State, he said.
Though Fort Hays State is located about 200 miles west of Topeka on Interstate 70, Briggs said the university is seeing more enrollment from students from the eastern part of the state.
He said if the university can get potential students to visit, there is a good chance many will choose to come to Fort Hays State.
In addition to the university’s continued growth, Fort Hays State’s athletics teams -- particularly its football squad -- also have been on the upswing in recent years, contributing to the upbeat mood on campus.
Fort Hays State’s football team this season has qualified for the NCAA Division II playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The Tigers, who won a share of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association conference for the 2018 season after coming out on top of the league in 2017, will play at the University of Indianapolis at noon Saturday in the first round of the Division II playoffs.