The number of Kansas residents enrolled at K-State hit a 31-year low last fall, and despite the university’s efforts to reverse a five-year downturn in overall enrollment, the skid in Sunflower State students at the university is only expected to worsen, a Mercury analysis of enrollment and population data found.

In December, The Mercury reported on the similar drops in enrollment for non-resident students (12.2%) and resident students (12.4%) since a 2014 peak of 24,766 total students at the university’s Manhattan, Olathe and Salina campuses.

But slips in Kansan enrollment have had a more profound effect on the number of students at K-State, since residents traditionally have made up a significant portion of the student body, at least in comparison to other land-grant universities. Examining all 32 years of available enrollment data, the Mercury found that Kansas students had historically made up about 80% of the student body.

It was in 2003, however, that K-State’s resident enrollment peaked at 18,946, and in-state students made up 82.2% of the student body. At the same time that gains in out-of-state and international enrollment propelled the university to its 2014 record size, steady drops in in-state enrollment gradually brought the number of Kansas students down to 15,119, or 69.6% of the student body.

In comparison to other land-grant universities, K-State’s proportion of resident enrollment is above average.

As part of the K-State 2025 plan — which K-State is in the process of refreshing — the university compares K-State’s data to 10 other peer land-grant institutions of similar size. Those universities include Big 12 peers like Iowa State and Oklahoma State, as well as schools like Clemson, Washington State and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to represent a wider geographic comparison.

A Mercury analysis of fall 2019 residency enrollment data from those universities shows that K-State’s percentage of resident students, 69.6%, sits just above the middle of that pack, ranking No. 5 out of 11 institutions on the list. Meanwhile, KU, which is not among K-State’s comparative institutions, had a resident rate of 60.7% this year.

Drops in Kansas high schoolers

For years, K-State boasted that it was the No.-1 choice among Kansas high schoolers, using Kansas Board of Regents reports for in-state freshmen. But that’s not a statistic the university actively uses anymore, since the regents have changed the way they report enrollment data.

In the past decade, fewer Kansas high schoolers have pursued education at four-year institutions, choosing instead to look for cheaper alternatives at non-traditional institutions. Technical colleges like Manhattan Area Technical College have led Board of Regents institutions in terms of headcount growth, with MATC seeing the biggest growth, 16.3%, of any state school last year.

Using older university enrollment reports and analyses, the Mercury calculated K-State’s approximate share of the state’s yearly graduating high school classes since 2008. Enrollment reports prior to 2008 aren’t reliable because the university changed its reporting procedures that year.

The university keeps track of the number of first-time, traditional (under 20 years of age) freshmen, and while the university saw a record freshman class of residents in 2013 (2,971 Kansans, 8.8%), things have only slipped since then. K-State’s share of graduating Kansas high schoolers in 2019 was 7.04% (compared to 2018, 7.76%, which is a drop of 9.27%).

And the pool of Kansas graduates is expected to shrink. According to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the state’s zero to four-year-old population peaked at 205,492 in 2010, when that segment made up 7.2% of the total population. While Kansas’ population has inched slightly upward since then, that demographic shrank to 189,335, or a 7.8% decrease, in 2018, the last year for which data is available.

In 2018, 0 to 4-year-olds made up just 6.5% of the total Kansas population, pointing to an aging Kansas population and a rapidly declining market for in-state students. Looking at the state’s kindergarten classes for the past 13 years, Kansas has only a few years before its high school graduating class begins to shrink around 2026.

“Right now, our future classes are in kindergarten,” Jeff Morris, vice president of communications and marketing, said. “You can look at what’s happening K-12 and really project about how many people will be college eligible within that cohort. We know it’s going to be flat or slightly down for the foreseeable future.”

Other reasons

for the shift

K-State leaders have given various reasons for the five-year skid in overall enrollment, such as fewer transfer and international students and fewer Kansas students pursuing traditional higher education. More students, particularly in-state students, are also graduating on time.

“As we continue to improve our graduation rates, we will see enrollment decline as students take less time to complete their degrees,” said Karen Goos, the university’s vice provost for enrollment management. Goos, who oversees K-State’s enrollment strategy. She the first person to fill that role and was hired in October.

“Kansas State University’s goal is not only to recruit students but to fulfill our commitment to those students to graduate on time, with less debt and successfully transition into fulfilling careers,” she said.

With more students getting through their college programs on time, the university’s enrollment and subsequent tuition revenue take a hit, Goos said.

“They’re graduating faster with less debt,” she said. “It’s important to understand that for us, if we’re truly committed to our land-grant mission, we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment that we make to our students. That might mean enrollment will be down. There might be less net tuition revenue, but we still meet our goals as an institution.”

Other factors in the slide in in-state enrollment, such as changes in admissions standards, the economy and increased competition across the entire higher education industry, also have taken their toll on K-State’s student body, university officials said.

Furthermore, the university’s reaction to declining enrollment was late, Morris said. While K-State was enjoying a record enrollment of just under 25,000 in 2014, the University of Kansas and Wichita State University were dealing with their own mid-decade enrollment declines.

However, those universities were “aggressive and nimble” in their responses. Wichita State hired an enrollment consultant, and KU announced multi-million-dollar marketing programs to boost enrollment, Morris said.

K-State’s response to enrollment declines did not start until fall 2017, when the university began its strategic enrollment plan, Morris said.

“We were victims of our success, because we were doing very well,” Morris said. “Sometimes, when you’re doing very well, you’re not looking forward as you should. When these trends came in, we started saying that we’d get more selective, and we’d maybe change some of the markets we went to.”

Change in strategy

As part of its enrollment plan, K-State is revamping its strategy for in-state and out-of-state students. Goos said K-State is streamlining its recruiting software to better coordinate its marketing efforts. Campus visits, which the university previously charged for, will now be free. The university is increasing its purchases of high school sophomore and junior names for targeted marketing.

Last year, K-State also adjusted its scholarship strategy. The number and size of Putnam Scholarships, the awards the university gives to high-performing Kansas freshmen, is now capped, with the intent of redistributing those funds to other priority demographics, particularly students who meet need-based criteria.

But while K-State’s goal is grow back to its peak enrollment of more than 24,000 students, university officials don’t think that will happen from an increased share of the Kansas market.

Instead, K-State officials are looking outside of the state.

“I think it’s important that we still have a stronghold in Kansas, because it’s part of our land-grant mission, that we serve Kansas well,” Goos said. “But I do think it helps to build the brand, build the mission and build the overall health of the university in diversifying our student populations. Having freshmen, transfers, adults, in-state, out-of-state — I think that helps overall, building our scope of students.”

The Midwest makes up much of K-State’s out-of-state student population, and Goos said the university’s plan will continue to target delegations from those states.

States in the Midwest Student Exchange Program — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin — pay just 150% of K-State’s resident tuition rate, compared to 200% for other states. And students from other states outside of the Midwest — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas — that have become strongholds of K-State alumni are eligible for a scholarship that amounts to them paying 150% tuition, subject to academic criteria.

Last fall, K-State implemented the Common Application — a standardized college admissions application that will allow students from across the country (and world) to more easily apply to K-State. The university is mulling doing the same for transfer students, who also play a role in boosting K-State’s enrollment numbers.

Goos, a Nebraska native who previously worked in enrollment management in Missouri before coming to K-State, said her prior image of K-State was positive, but it was never somewhere she seriously considered attending, since K-State never recruited her.

“We need to do a better job of (turning) what’s a positive image (of K-State) into a destination — to make that choice to make that your educational home,” she said.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do. Everyone I’ve talked to has said positive things about the university, but we need to get them to consider sending their kids or coming to school here themselves.”

When K-State gets a foothold in other states, that provides the potential for even more growth.

“Once they come here, they have a really positive experience, so they can go back to those communities and tell their K-State story,” Goos said. “That only helps us grow even more.”

A waiting game

K-State officials have asked the public for patience while its enrollment strategy kicks in, and they said the first results of that plan should be visible in next fall’s enrollment numbers.

At this point in the year, most of the freshman class has applied, and Goos said those numbers have been promising.

Though officials didn’t provide numbers, they said inquiries, applications and admissions are all up, but only time will tell whether that interest turns into enrollment.

Out-of-state student applicants typically turn into actual students at about half the rate of in-state applicants, but Goos said that even if a fraction of an increase in the amount of applications turns into student enrollment, that’s still an increase.

University officials think K-State’s optimal enrollment sits between 21,000 and 24,000. But the university’s primary goal is to stabilize enrollment, which will help stabilize the university’s budget, although tuition is just one of many factors that influence enrollment.

“We’re not going to be able to price our way out of this budget thing,” Morris said. “We’ve got price points. Kansans, especially, are very sensitive to the cost. Knowing our market and being able to respond to it will be key to our success in the future. I think we’re doing the right things, it just takes us a while to retool the enterprise and get those things in place.”

Goos said the university’s tuition strategy has had to balance attracting students with protecting the financial health of the university so that it can continue its land-grant mission of providing quality education and academic services to the state.

But in making tuition changes, K-State can’t simply lower tuition to get more in-state students, especially if that market is shrinking.

Decreasing state revenue as a portion of the university’s budget in the past two decades means the university relies more heavily on tuition for operations, and lower tuition rates would result in more students. More students require more university resources, meaning K-State would be trying to do more with less, Goos said.

“The money has to come from somewhere, and we don’t want it to come at the expense of our students’ experiences.”