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Kansas public university, college enrollment grows despite 12.5% plunge at Emporia State

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Kansas public university, college enrollment grows despite 12.5% plunge at Emporia State

Sep 27, 2023 | 11:33 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Kansas public university, college enrollment grows despite 12.5% plunge at Emporia State
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Enrollment in the Kansas Board of Regents system of public universities and colleges this fall grew by 2% despite the 12.5% enrollment collapse at Emporia State University. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The 12.5% enrollment contraction this fall semester at Emporia State University followed turbulence of faculty dismissals and academic program upheaval at the state’s smallest public university and ran counter to an overall increase in the number of students attending 32 public universities and colleges in Kansas.

Preliminary enrollment reports showed a 2% rise in attendance at universities, community colleges and technical colleges supervised by the Kansas Board of Regents.

“We are encouraged to see enrollment growth across our system this year,” said Blake Flanders, president and chief executive officer of the state Board of Regents. “We look forward to continuing this work and serving Kansas families and businesses.”

He didn’t address ESU’s deepening enrollment challenge in a statement issued Wednesday in conjunction with release of the systemwide tally of student attendance.

The only institution in Kansas’ public higher education system with a double-digit enrollment decline this fall semester was ESU, a campus that has endured a 19.6% reduction in enrollment over the past five years. Meanwhile, the University of Kansas welcomed the largest freshman class in the school’s history and Kansas State University reported its first enrollment increase in nine years.

ESU administrators leading a controversial overhaul of the university — the American Association of University Professors denounced firing of tenured faculty — sought to lower enrollment expectations in advance of public disclosure of this fall’s campus enrollment report. Writing was on the wall during the spring semester when ESU enrollment slid 7.9% compared to spring 2022, but that report was withheld from the public for more than six months.

A university spokesperson said ESU officials had forecast an enrollment decline this fall semester of 5% to 15%.

“Enrollment, while important, is just part of the story,” said Ken Hush, president of Emporia State. “The rest of the story is what it costs to operate the university. Enrollment numbers hold little significance unless they are compared to expenses. This means enrollment isn’t necessarily equal to success.”

The fall 2023 enrollment summaries, both the headcount and full-time equivalent reports, serve as important metrics because they offered snapshots of evolving student demand for higher education instruction. Campus enrollment also has served as a key indicator of revenue trends in terms of student tuition and fees. For example, ESU’s enrollment drop led to a recent request for millions of dollars from the Kansas Legislature to cover part of the university’s bond debt.

ESU an enrollment outlier

In fall 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ESU enrollment belied the trend elsewhere in Kansas. ESU lost 0.8% of enrollment in fall 2020 compared to the previous year, while overall enrollment dropped 3.5% at the state’s six universities. The community colleges were hit by a 14.1% reduction in fall 2020. The technical colleges surrendered 9.4% of enrollment during height of the public health pandemic.

Hush was hired by the Board of Regents in November 2021, but was an unusual selection because he didn’t hold an advanced academic degree typical of university CEOs. He is a graduate of ESU, where he played on the tennis team, and held executive jobs during his career with Koch Minerals and Carbon.

“You can be confident that Emporia State is in a good position as we are on the leading edge of this industry change,” Hush said.

The University of Kansas experienced 6.7% enrollment growth this fall semester, while Wichita State University’s total went up 3.7% and Kansas State University moved the needle up by 0.1%. Fort Hays State University declined 0.8% and Pittsburg State University fell 2.2%. The six state universities grew by 1.7% or 1,467 students.

KU chancellor Doug Girod said the university’s record-breaking freshman class included 5,259 new Jayhawks. That 18% jump from last year surpassed the previous record surge in 2008. Overall, he said, KU enrollment reached 29,300 students, which combines totals on the main campus in Lawrence, a satellite campus in Overland Park and the medical center campus in Kansas City, Kansas.

“We are pleased to welcome this historic freshman class and to have grown enrollment to the highest level in years,” Girod said. “These numbers demonstrate that talented students from across the state and nation see the benefit of attending a top research institution like KU to prepare for their lives and careers.”

KSU breaks 9-year skid

Karen Goos, vice provost for enrollment management at Kansas State, celebrated the land-grant university’s first enrollment increase in nine years. The university’s enrollment among in-state students climbed 6.8% and out-of-state enrollment blossomed 15.1% compared to one year ago. There also was a bump of 2.8% in transfer students and enrollment by first-time freshman grew 9%, she said.

“This year’s increases are a direct result of our commitment to the strategic enrollment plan,” Goos said. “The past two years have seen tremendous progress in first-time freshman and transfer student classes, which sets K-State on a path to continued growth.”

Washburn University in Topeka, which is considered a municipal university, increased enrollment by 243 students or 3.7%.

Eleven of the 19 community colleges in Kansas added students. The 643-student expansion among community colleges equated to 1.1%. Enrollment growth of 871 students at the six technical colleges amounted to a surge of 8.6%.

Overall, the Kansas Board of Regents system enrolled 168,400 students this fall semester to reach 2% growth. The system’s enrollment had fallen 7.2% in the past five years and 9.5% over a 10-year period.

Flanders said a key to reversing the declining-enrollment trend was to continue work to make higher education more affordable to students.

“With initiatives such as increased student financial aid, a common general education package and growing opportunities for students to participate in applied learning and internships, our system has made important strides,” he said.