Sitting amid wheat and milo fields in western Kansas, the challenge for Fort Hays State is recruiting rural high school graduates to enroll, according to FHSU president Tisa Mason.

“We are really working hard to get students here but it’s not easy to grow the on-campus population," Mason said Tuesday morning at an informal gathering of Hays and Ellis County commissioners.

“It used to be several years ago it was said the population that is not going to college are students of color,” Mason said. “Well, now the biggest population not going to college are rural students.”

Even so, unlike other universities around the state, Fort Hays, with more than 15,900 students, has grown aggressively, particularly in online learning enrollment. About 8,000 of the university’s students are in Kansas, she said.

“We’re the only institution that’s been growing enrollment in Kansas,” Mason explained during the breakfast at the FHSU President’s Home. “Over half of our enrollment is in Kansas.”

The university’s estimated 2018 economic impact on Ellis County and four surrounding counties ranged from $233.7 million to $175.3 million, according to a new economic impact study. The study by FHSU finance and economics faculty used two different comprehensive and accepted methodologies.

It’s difficult to measure the full impact, said Emily Breit, associate professor of finance, one of the researchers on the study.

“We have a significant number of our students, after they go to Fort Hays State they stay in the community, they create more jobs in the community, and those kinds of impacts get very, very difficult to measure,” Breit said. “So there’s a lot of leakage that isn’t included in this study, and the impact is far greater than we can actually measure. These are probably very, very conservative estimates.”

FHSU employs 956 faculty and staff. There are 4,500 students on campus for the 2019-2020 school year, Mason said.

“Has campus hit capacity?” asked City Commissioner Michael Berges.

“We still have space to grow on campus; I’d like to see us more around 5,000, 6,000,” Mason said. “That’s kind of the sweet spot. We could probably handle 7,500.”

FHSU is doing a lot of outreach to Garden City and Dodge City, she said, busing in potential students to see the campus and helping first-generation students fill out required forms.

It’s easier to grow distance education, she said, with FHSU serving every county in Kansas, every state in America, every branch of the military and every continent except Antarctica.

Fort Hays started its distance learning program years ago and is ahead of the curve, but other institutions have now jumped in and are catching on.

“That’s even getting to be more competitive and challenging,” Mason said.

Ellis County Commissioner Dustin Roths asked what the county can do to help.

“One of the things that we’re kind of held hostage by is the demographics,” said Jason Williby, president and CEO of the Fort Hays State University Foundation. “Fewer students graduate from high schools west of Salina every single year. We get an outsized portion of that, I think it’s roughly half of all students that graduate west of Salina. If they’re going to attend college, they’re going to attend Fort Hays State. But if that number declines every year, and there’s no signs showing that that’s going to be reversed anytime soon, we can’t grow our percentage at a high enough rate to take over the smaller number.”

Even drawing people from surrounding communities is tough, Williby said.

“The No. 1 barrier is just getting a student, and their parent, to step foot on campus,” he said. “Once they come here, they take the tour, or they go to a ball game or they meet a professor through a camp, the likelihood of converting them from a potential student to a student goes up exponentially. So if you’re thinking about how can you help us get on campus students that are traditional age, think of ways that you can encourage people in your sphere of influence to physically come take a tour.”

The big issue is to develop outreach strategies and work together to recruit rural kids, then help them return to their communities.

The Hays City Scholarship, funded from the city of Hays budget, helps in that regard. But Mason welcomed a suggestion from city commissioner and Hays Mayor Shaun Musil. Musil proposed FHSU spread word of its economic impact with colorful, palm-sized information cards or pamphlets. The cards could be placed to read and take away at retailers, hotels and other places of business in town, like his Paisley Pear Wine Bar & Bistro.

Williby and Mason both said a strong airport is important.

Hays Regional Airport in 2018 hit a new record for commercial flight boardings to Denver and Chicago, with 12,032, and broke that record again in 2019, with more than 13,200 boardings.

But Utah-based SkyWest Airlines announced in December it will end its service to Chicago in March but keep its flights between Hays and Denver.

Hays City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said officials this spring will be in Washington to lobby the U.S. Department of Transportation and legislators on behalf of the airport.

“I’m so not happy by the changes,” Jacobs said, noting Hays is making heavy use of the airport, and with competition now coming from Salina.

“It’s really distressing to me how much marketing Salina is doing now for their flight,” Jacobs said. “It’s all over social media, it’s in our newspapers, it’s everywhere. I don’t know what the answer is for us, but I have people now talking about, ‘Well, I can get to Salina in about an hour and 10 minutes, it’s no different than in the city, getting out to the airport.’”

Williby said Mason changed some policies over a year ago so faculty and staff could use the airport more, designating Hays Regional Airport for authorized travel.

“We had a lot of conversations on two fronts,” Mason said. “For one, our faculty and staff work really hard in traveling away from their families, and the time it takes to drive. It may save some money, but it’s wear and tear on relationships and family. Two, we knew that numbers at the airport help us build a stronger airport, and so we did that.”

The university adds economic impact in ways that aren’t always obvious, Mason said, noting FHSU added its first-ever December commencement.

“We did that because we wanted the students to have the milestone that is so important of walking across that stage,” she said. “But the economic impact just went up because we added another event.”

The continued growth of Fort Hays is important to the rest of the community, said Musil, Jacobs and Roths.

“If we want to grow in a big way,” Musil said, “we’ll grow faster all together.”