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The new Higher Education Affiliate Plan is a powerful step forward for rural Kansas


Di Tisa Mason, President, Fort Hays State University, Eric Burks, President, North Central Kansas Technical College, and Ben Schears, President, Northwest Kansas Technical College

Fort Hays State University, North Central Kansas Technical College and Northwest Kansas Technical College have long been beacons of opportunity and engines of economic prosperity in rural Kansas. We, the three presidents and creators of a new institutional affiliation initiative, believe that it is now more essential than ever that every Kansan has the opportunity to fully develop their talents, skills and interests.

Our affiliate initiative was created to provide solutions for rural Kansas. These include developing market-smart academic programs, integrated student services, and harnessing new efficiencies and optimizations that reduce unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to student success. We will also create a powerful coalition of business, industry and community focused on increasing opportunities for our students, expanding entrepreneurship and meeting the development needs of the local workforce.

You may ask why this affiliation and why now? Simply put, our institutions exist to serve our students and communities. This is the true north that drives all of our work. Our shared responsibility is to recognize and embrace our role in creating opportunities for rural Kansans and their communities. Today and in the days to come, our communities face significant demographic and economic challenges, including:

  • A declining rural population: Experts at the Wichita State Center for Economic Development and Business Research predict a 33 percent decline in rural Kansas by 2064.
  • An aging workforce: According to the Aging Administration, more than half a million people in Kansas are now over the age of 60. The US Census Bureau predicts that nearly 25 percent of the state’s population will be age 60 or older by 2030.
  • A decline in the number of college students in rural Kansas: According to a 2018 report titled Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Kansas will see a 15 percent decline in college students by 2029.

The economic impact of these demographic changes is sadly simple: a shrinking workforce means a decline in Kansas’ rural economy.

As we work to implement our initiative, our primary focus will be on providing better and more effective solutions for the students, businesses and communities we serve.

For students, our efforts will focus on increasing access and creating new pathways to achieve our students’ educational goals. These include opportunities to earn a certificate, secure stackable credentials, or earn an associate, college or graduate degree.

We will also create new hands-on learning opportunities, expand career networks and provide integrated career counseling services that help students navigate what we expect to be an expanding array of choices and options.

For employers, the partnership will increase the talent pipeline, create more experiential learning partnerships, and enable employers to shape how those programs are developed and delivered. Employers will also benefit from expanded access to employee workforce/professional development programs and services, ranging from training and counseling programs to continuing education opportunities.

This affiliation will create opportunities for employers to engage with and evaluate prospective employees through micro internships and “earn as you learn” programs. These programs will enable employers to recruit and train future employees who are job-ready and work culture-ready from day one. Our initial academic pilot programs in agriculture, nursing, and construction were specifically selected to meet the critical needs of the workforce in rural Kansas.

This affiliation will create stronger communities by addressing our demographic and workforce challenges. Our efforts will keep our graduates local so they can contribute to the vitality of our region through the careers they build and through their many contributions to the economic, social and civic health of our cities.

To turn the tide against the threats facing our rural communities, we’ll need your help. Join us as we work to identify new opportunities and strengthen our ties to the communities we serve.

Each of our institutions stands ready to pursue this initiative from a position of strength and at a time when the challenges we face can be proactively addressed. Our efforts will create stronger connections between our three institutions, our students, and the communities, businesses and industries we serve. This affiliate initiative is the right move at the right time.

Follow our Affiliate Strategy initiative and share your comments and questions online at fhsu.edu/affiliation.

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