Fort Hays State University will soon reach the 1,000-mark for the number of entering freshmen, according to Dennis King, FHSU's assistant vice president for student affairs.

In comments to the Hays City Commission on Thursday evening, King said FHSU is now consistently enrolling more than 900 first-year students each year.

"We're soon going to break 1,000 new freshmen coming in," said King to the commissioners.

His comments were part of an update by Joey Linn, vice president for student affairs, on the joint City Scholarship program that Hays provides each year at FHSU. Linn was asking the commission to continue funding the scholarship in 2020.

The program offers scholarship money to recruit and retain students.

Hitting the enrollment numbers, though, isn't easy, said Linn.

"It's dog-eat-dog out there now when it comes to enrollment," Linn said. "We can't take what we've done for granted, because 18 consecutive enrollment records, we just can't sustain that, it's getting tougher and tougher. All the universities that I've seen with quite drastic decreases in enrollment are spending a lot of money trying to turn that around."

Linn said the FHSU recruiting team is constantly reaching further, spending more time in Topeka, Kansas City, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Dallas.

At the same time, he said, "we're doing everything we can to not forget our backyard - everybody here in western Kansas."

"The lifeblood, really, and heartbeat of our campus is right here," Linn said. "We have to do everything we can to maintain this on-campus environment, between 4,500 and 5,000 students. That's become harder and harder."

Looking at students getting the Hays City Scholarship, there's an 85 percent retention rate, King said, saying the money encourages students to stay on top of their studies since it requires a 3.3 GPA.

Similarly, this academic year, 136 students took advantage of the Ellis County residence hall discount program, which saved students $135,374.

"The more we retain, not only the better off the university is, but the better off the city is," Linn said.

The City Scholarship started more than 30 years ago with the 1987-1988 academic year. For 2018-2019, Hays gave $100,000 and FHSU made up the rest to award a total of $111,900 for the program.

The funding awards $50,000 a year for recruitment, which amounts now to 40 awards, and $40,000 for retention, or 26 renewal awards.

The economic benefit to the city is substantial, King indicated.

"Where do they go for the second year?" King said. "They're moving off campus; they're moving into city housing; they're moving out of the meal plans, they're moving in to purchasing locally."

City Commissioner Eber Phelps said he hopes the program continues.

"I'm certain that $100,000 investment is well worth it," Phelps said. "I've talked to a number of students who've said the scholarship is why they came here."

Besides students, parents also come to town, he said.

"That amount that the city invests gets realized back in the community just shortly after enrollment," Phelps said. "Just go into any of the local grocery stores and you'll see some of the shelves have been wiped out as students stock up for the semester on food and cleaning supplies."

City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said she met people in the community whose students are taking advantage of the discount residence hall program.

From 1987, when the scholarship started, until today, FHSU's total enrollment has more than doubled from 5,186 to 15,523 in 2018. Much of that growth is due to its international partnerships.

The number of recipients of the City Scholarships has gone from 52 in 1987 to 460 today.

"As commissioner Phelps said, it amazes me mid-August when you see the difference in the city of Hays when the students move in," King said, "and the difference mid-May when the students move out. The town changes drastically."

The numbers are staggering, he said.

Parents and students say one of the big reasons they choose Fort Hays, besides academics, is the city is a safe environment for them.

"They feel really good about sending their students here," King said.

A survey of students found that safety and how students fit into the community was one of the top two factors important to students, Linn said.