The college in our college town is in crisis. The alarm bells are ringing. It’s on fire up there. There’s an earthquake, a mudslide, a tsunami. A flood.
Hello? Anybody paying attention?
The latest annual enrollment report, released this week, shows the number of K-State students at its lowest point since 1989. A drought is probably the best metaphor, but that doesn’t grab your attention as much as it needs to.
To put it in context: All the enrollment growth during the long Jon Wefald presidency has now been wiped out. All that tub-thumping by President Wefald and Pat Bosco amounted to, well, a bubble.
The last time enrollment was this low, Bill Snyder had not yet coached a game.
There were no luxury suites at the stadium, and K-State played in the Big 8 against Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri. The Internet didn’t exist; nobody had a cell phone. Taylor Swift was a newborn. Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. Donald Trump? Who the heck was he? Lon Kruger was the basketball coach. Bramlage was brand-new. The mall was cutting-edge. I was a senior in college.
I now have a 26-year-old son who is running his own company premised entirely on digital technology that nobody even imagined back then. My hair is all gray. You? You look great. Haven’t changed a bit.
But it’s been a long time. More than a generation.
In fact, that word brings up a point. The long period of growth in enrollment at K-State was essentially the college-going years of the children of the baby boomers. That generation, Generation Y and/or the Millenials, represented a demographic bulge in population in that age group. Colleges rode that wave, and could charge more in enrollment as the perceived value of a degree rose.
That’s over. Been over for awhile.
K-State is swimming upstream against a few other currents, too. Farming, the guts of the economy of its territory, involves fewer and fewer people. Jucos offer a cut-rate option. The pandemic made clear that you can do college from a basement room in your parents’ house in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Thing is, none of this means decline is inevitable. In fact, overall college enrollment grew 16 percent between 2000 and 2019 in Kansas. All of the growth occurred in that first decade — 2000 to 2010 — but still, the point is that K-State is doing worse than average. That means there are models to follow to do better.
Need inspiration? Well, decline seemed inevitable when Jon Wefald got here, and that turned around. Terrible football seemed like our birthright and destiny when Bill Snyder showed up in town. A decade later, the Wildcats were No. 1 in the country.
Anything is possible. But it’s going to take major effort. And the first step is to recognize that there’s a really, really serious problem. As in: The house is on fire.