HAYS, Kan. (KSNW) — Three higher education institutions in rural Kansas are working together to fight against the declining population in their areas.

The presidents of Fort Hays State University (FHSU), North Central Kansas Technical College (NCK Tech) in Beloit, and Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland believe that if they have a formal affiliation, they will be able to attract and keep more students in rural communities while providing a larger workforce for businesses.

The three presidents went before the Kansas Board of Regents Wednesday to get approval for the affiliation.

The problem

The presidents pointed to how steep the population drop has been and where it is expected to go if nothing is done.

Northwest Tech President Ben Schears told the board members that his area covers 17 counties and has 24 school districts. He said there are 3,600 fewer K-12 students in his area now than 30 years ago.

“The population of Goodland is about 3,600,” he said. “So you take that, and it’s about the equivalent of wiping the community of Goodland off the map in western Kansas. Those are not sustainable situations that we as an institution can abide by.”

Experts from the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University forecast a 33% decline in rural populations in Kansas by 2064. The presidents say that number, combined with an aging workforce, will mean a declining economy.

The plan

Under the proposal, the three schools would develop and collaborate on programs and initiatives.

The tech schools would remain separate technical colleges providing two-year associate degrees and certificates. They would receive state funds available to technical colleges.

However, they would operationally become campuses of FHSU. Northwest Tech is expected to become Fort Hays State University-Northwest Tech, and NCK Tech is expected to become Fort Hays State University-NCK Tech.

“This was not something where Fort Hays State reached out to try to take over the tech colleges in the area,” Schears said. “This is something where we reached out to them.”

“We have shared this proposed affiliation with our employees,” NCK Tech President Eric Burks said. “It represents change, so as you can imagine, there’s naturally some trepidation, some concern, but there’s also a lot of excitement on our campuses about what this could mean for our future and for our students.”

“Since we first began discussing this strategic opportunity, our inspiration has always been our shared commitment to what we refer to as our ‘true north,’ serving the students, communities, and businesses of rural Kansas,” FHSU President Tisa Mason said.

Schears and Burks will continue to lead their schools but will report to Mason under the authority of the Kansas Board of Regents. All other employees will remain with their respective institutions. The technical college boards will become primarily advisory boards.

The technical college boards have already voted in favor of the affiliation.

“Today, as we begin to move through the affiliation process, each of us is very appreciative that our three governing boards have entrusted us with the charge of aligning our efforts to delivering solutions that contribute to economic prosperity in rural western Kansas,” Mason said.

“Our folks also realize that we are better coming to this partnership in a position of strength instead of waiting until we’re not in a position of strength,” Burks said.

The three presidents say there will be no effort to close any campus or reduce funding eligibility. They will also not seek to disrupt the core mission of any one institution, and the three presidents have no intention of moving forward in a manner that disadvantages any of the partners.

The three institutions have identified several academic and administrative pilots they will use as proof-of-concept platforms to test ideas and identify best practices before moving to full implementation. The first three academic pilots will focus on agriculture, construction management, and nursing. The first administrative pilots will focus on admissions, marketing, advising, general education, transfer processes, and inter-institutional registrar functions.

Proposed benefits

During their presentation to the Board of Regents, the presidents said their plan would benefit students, employers, and communities.

“For students, the affiliation increases access to more program offerings at more locations,” Mason said.

She said students would have new pathways to achieve educational goals, ranging from simple credit hours to certificates to graduate degrees, all with low tuition and seamless transfer processes.

Mason said students would also have access to an expanded career network and professional advisors, ultimately leading to higher completion rates and jobs.

Burks spoke about the positive aspects for businesses.

“The affiliation helps address workforce concerns by expanding or creating more experiential learning partnerships and giving employers the opportunity to shape how those programs develop and align with their needs,” Burks said.

He said the schools will also be able to help with employee development and will give companies access to prospective employees.

Schears said that stronger educational institutions contribute to the health and viability of their communities. He said they also help to keep graduates local, helping the local economy.

“Is this the silver bullet to turning around population change in northwest Kansas? No. But is it a piece? Is it a part? Absolutely,” Schears said. “What I think it can be is a catalyst, most importantly, a catalyst to changing the conversation with business and industry and attracting individuals to western Kansas, north central Kansas and northwest Kansas to be able to see change happen.”

Regents approve, now to the Kansas Legislature

The Board of Regents congratulated the three presidents for coming up with the idea and working together to move it forward. Some board members said the idea showed courageous leadership.

“Courage and humility are the secret recipe for leadership,” Kansas Board of Regents Chair Jon Rolph said. “It’s a blessing to everybody who lives up there in your neck of the woods that you all can stand up there together and work together for solutions that help the greatest number of people.”

He said Kansas already has the example of affiliations like this working — Wichita State University and WSU Tech.

After the board voted unanimously to approve the affiliation, the board members applauded the presidents.

The next step is getting the Kansas Legislature to approve the plan. It will be presented to lawmakers within the next several weeks. After that, it will need the OK of the Higher Learning Commission.

If you want to watch the presidents’ pitch to the Kansas Board of Regents, click here for the YouTube video and scroll to 2:16:00.