Much like the school he runs, Manhattan Area Technical College president Jim Genandt likes to keep commencement simple.

So he only had three rules for parents and family members of MATC students at Saturday’s pompless circumstance in the K-State Student Union ballroom: no profanity, no obscenity, but most importantly, no golf claps.

“You’ve sacrificed to help them get here, so we want this to be a celebration,” Genandt told the families, encouraging them to be loud, boisterous, and above all, proud of their graduates.

When Kesha Beaufosse walked across the stage, her family — which included her three children, mother and cousin — cheered and shouted loudly from the back of the ballroom.

Beaufosse, a 31-year-old Army veteran from Leavenworth, said she felt relief in walking across the stage to earn her associate’s degree in nursing. Nursing is one of the hardest degrees to get, she said, but she’d gotten through, and she’d even picked MATC because it has a regional reputation for producing great nurses, she said.

“I loved MATC and the instructors, because they cared about us as individuals,” Beaufosse, a future nurse at Manhattan Surgical Hospital, said. “It’s different because it’s smaller, and you’re not treated like a number. You deal with the same people, the same teachers who know you.”

Saturday’s commencement was a celebration of the school’s December graduates, to be sure, but it was also a celebration of the school’s successes in the five years Genandt has helmed the school. In the past few years marked with enrollment decline or stagnation at many of the state’s higher education institutions, Kansas’ two-year technical colleges have comparatively shined in their growth.

While headcount enrollment at Kansas’ universities has been flat over the past five years, decreasing by half of a percent, enrollment at the state’s technical colleges has boomed, growing by 42% since 2014. This year, MATC’s 16.3% growth since the preceding fall led all state schools in headcount enrollment.

And in looking into the next five years, Genandt —who also heads the state group of technical college presidents this year — projects he could grow MATC by anywhere between 50% and 100%.

This year, MATC ranked among the nation’s top public two-year institutions in two different studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked MATC no. 25 out of 876 publicly funded two-year colleges for its graduation rate, and in November, a Georgetown study ranked MATC at no. 21 among similar institutions for its estimated $947,000 net value of a degree after 40 years. When comparing among all institution types, MATC and K-State’s values were similar, with K-State edging MATC out with a degree value of $951,000 after 40 years.

”HIRE” education

Genandt said his institution focuses on “HIRE education,” or job-driven learning, and demand for his and other technical colleges’ students is high. Consequently, demand for spots in technical education programs is high, and Genandt said he’s had to turn away students from the school’s nursing and welding programs.

But that’s also helped technical schools like MATC attract higher quality students since they, by virtue of competing for limited spots in those programs, are more dedicated and motivated to make the most of their courses.

“We don’t take students who don’t have a major,” Genandt said. “We want people with focus and direction. They need to have an idea of the program they’ll complete, and that helps with job and graduation rates because students know what they want to do coming in. These things run in cycles, and with companies all hiring right now, tech students have a leg up.”

Those students tend to stay in the area, Genandt said, since the school maintains close relationships with local businesses and organizations, and several area businessmen sit on the school’s various advisory boards. It’s those businesses who often help the school save on operational expenses by donating professional equipment, machinery and materials for students to practice.

Each of the school’s programs includes an internship or apprenticeship component, and when the students work with local businesses, Genandt said those businesses are more ready to hire someone they’ve gotten to know with a good work ethic.

“We do this at a very low cost of public funds,” Genandt said. “The majority of our students stay in Kansas, they stay in the area — as taxpayers and consumers. That’s why I say that technical colleges are the best value, or best return on investment, in the state, and Manhattan Tech leads the way.”

Eyes on expansion

Many of those students, particularly students in the electric power and distribution program, go onto jobs with starting salaries between $50,000 and $80,000, and within just a few years, some of them might move onto salaries in the six-figure range, Genandt said.

However, Genandt worries that MATC, and the region by extension, is losing potential students because of a lack of space, particularly in nursing and welding.

“There’s more and more awareness of value of tech ed, but I’m sometimes concerned that there isn’t the support as compared to its return on investment,” he said. “We’re missing opportunities we shouldn’t be, but we have no way to grab them. We don’t need millions and millions of dollars. I think if we could provide each tech college with $3 million or $4 million more per year, you’d be amazed at what we could do.”

Unlike community colleges, technical colleges receive no local property tax funding. Compared to the hundreds of millions state universities receive, MATC receives about $2 million in state appropriations, or a third of its typical $6 million budget every year.

About $140,000 of the $2 million is for capital projects, an amount that Genandt said hasn’t changed since 1977. That makes it difficult for Genandt to expand, since much of MATC’s other revenue comes from tuition and fees, although Genandt said he’s been grateful to the Manhattan City Commission for granting some economic development loans for past projects.

With $6 million to $8 million in private donations, Genandt said he could build two new cheap facilities — one for healthcare, so the school can expand nursing and other health professions, and one to become the school’s home for its construction and manufacturing programs. That building also could house new programs in plumbing and electrician training.

“I don’t need fancy buildings, I need good work buildings, because we’re going to tear apart engines, we’re going to spill oil, and we’re going to build things and knock things around,” Genandt said. “I don’t need fancy buildings, but I need space and equipment.”

The MATC board of directors is working on buying a building in Wamego to create a new off-campus center for introductory technical classes. Genandt said that could help the school capture a market it doesn’t have a significant presence in, and he estimated that the off-campus center could bring in between 200 and 300 new students, if negotiations for the building are finalized in 2020.

Between those potential new programs and new partnerships with area school districts, Genandt is confident the school could grow or even double in the next five years, so at commencement, he thanked the crowd of students and their families and faculty and staff in helping the college achieve its recent successes.

“Manhattan Area Tech College isn’t just the vo-tech that nobody knows about,” he told the crowd. “We’re a national leader in graduation in earnings and much more, so thank you.”

At the end of the commencement ceremony, the graduates walked off to “We Are the Champions,” a song Genandt believes better reflects the occasion than any orchestral arrangement. The speakers blaring and their dues paid off, the student champions shuffled out of the ballroom, then back in to the waiting hugs of family.