Kansas’ four-year universities, colleges request greater state support of need-based scholarships

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Technical, community colleges seek funding to expand instructional capacity

TOPEKA — The president of the Kansas Board of Regents believes greater investment of state tax dollars in need-based scholarships could play a key role in placing a university education within reach of more students.

Gov. Laura Kelly warmed to that idea and proposed a $20 million expansion in financial aid for the six public universities within the Board of Regents system. Her recommendation was forwarded this week to the 2023 Legislature, but there’s no guarantee lawmakers will bite despite Kansas falling far behind Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado in terms of state funding of financial aid.

“We just need more, more, more,” said Blake Flanders, president and chief executive officer of the state Board of Regents.

He said existing state programs broadening opportunities for engineering and nursing students in Kansas demonstrated potential of public investment in financial assistance. Targeted state investment generated 3,000 additional nursing school graduates in Kansas from 2007 to 2016.

In engineering, $10 million per year for a decade enlarged the number of degree recipients from 875 to 1,500 per year at Kansas State University, University of Kansas and Wichita State University.

“This has been helpful in recruiting companies and given students a great job as they exit our universities,” Flanders told members of the House Higher Education Budget Committee.

Matt Lindsey, president of the Kansas Independent College Association, said the Legislature and governor ought to initiate a law fully opening state financial aid programs to the 21 nonprofit private schools in the state. He said these colleges were responsible for producing 37% of nursing school graduates and 17% of new teachers in Kansas.

“Financial aid should go to all students — private and public. This is about keeping Kansans in Kansas,” Lindsey said.

While those four-year colleges and universities were eager for legislators to appropriate more money for scholarships, leaders of the community and technical colleges asked the House committee to deliver budget support for academic buildings, equipment and other operational costs.

James Genandt, president of Manhattan Area Technical College, said the seven technical colleges in Kansas requested $21 million in new state funding. He said the cash could be used to stand up programs — diesel mechanics, for example — in response to growing workplace demand.

“We provide the most rapid, direct return on the investment of state dollars there is,” Genandt said. “Over 95% of our students come from Kansas. More than 80% of our graduates stay in Kansas. We’re the group that provides the mechanics that fix your cars, the people who fix your air conditioners and furnaces.”

He said four technical colleges in Kansas ranked in the top 20 nationally in terms of two-year college graduation rates. The technical colleges in Kansas could expand enrollment 25% to 50% with the right level of state funding, he said.

Heather Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees, said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the 19 community colleges had waiting lists for its nursing programs. She told lawmakers demand evaporated during the international public health calamity. Improved academic facilities and equipment could draw students back to nursing schools, she said.

“We’ve got to figure out how we get more people into healthcare,” Morgan said.

Rep. Steven Howe, a Salina Republican who chairs the committee, said he was intrigued by the affiliation proposal put forward by Fort Hays State University, North Central Kansas Technical College in Beloit and Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland.

The alignment, if approved by higher education officials and the Legislature, would recognize demographic and economic challenges in rural western Kansas. The agreement could remove bureaucratic barriers to college students and target workforce development needs in that region.

“We have always seen positive results from mergers and affiliations,” said Flanders, who leads the Board of Regents.

Flanders said the office of the Board of Regents would voluntarily follow an executive order issued by the governor in December banning TikTok from state-owned devices used by employees in the executive branch. She also forbid the state network from being relied upon to reach that social media platform.

Kelly said the TikTok app posed security risks because user data could be shared with the Chinese government.

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