When the Kansas Board of Regents announced enrollment numbers for the fall 2002 semester, one university stood far above the rest. Fort Hays State University's official 20th day headcount of 6,392 -- the highest in its 100-year history -- was a remarkable increase of 13.6 percent from fall 2001.
Unlike Fort Hays State's double-digit increase, the other five Regents universities saw only marginal gains in enrollment: Emporia State, 3.1 percent; the University of Kansas, 2.3 percent; Kansas State University, 1.6 percent; Pittsburg State University, 0.4 percent; and Wichita State University, 4.6 percent.
So, when Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, crisscrossed Kansas last week on his annual media tour, he made a point of explaining why the only university in western Kansas, with its aging and declining population, was able to achieve such tremendous growth.
"We saw this coming about 18 months ago," the president said of the struggling Kansas economy that has produced huge shortfalls in state revenue and corresponding decreases in funding for higher education. "We had three choices. We could hide our heads in the sand, we could raise more revenue by imposing stiff increases in tuition, or we could increase the number of students who attend Fort Hays State. We chose the third option; we decided to grow ourselves out of the financial challenge that faced us."
The other universities in the Regents system chose the second option. Beginning with the fall 2002 semester, Emporia State and Wichita State increased tuition by 9.0 percent, Pitt State increased tuition by 11.5 percent, K.U. increased tuition by 25.1 percent, and K-State increased tuition by 25.2 percent. By contrast, FHSU increased tuition by only 6.4 percent and did not raise any fees, so the actual increase in cost for its students was only 5.01 percent.
President Hammond said he would like to take credit for the growth strategy, but he pointed out that some businesses have previously used that model during difficult economic times. Most recently, when other airlines cut back on services following the 9/11 tragedy, Southwest Airways actually expanded its routes and, as a result, was the only airline to show a profit last year.
"Of course, this strategy will not work unless you have a good product," he said. "We are the most affordable university in Kansas, but most important to prospective students is choosing a university that offers a first-class education.
"I believe Fort Hays State offers the best undergraduate education in Kansas. Now, you would expect the president of the university to say that, but let me prove it to you."
The president pointed out that for the last several years, 99 percent of FHSU students are either employed or admitted to a program of advanced study within six months of graduation. Furthermore, both the debate team and the financial planning team captured national titles in the spring 2002 semester, and students from the Leadership Studies Department, the Art Department, the Information Networking and Telecommunications Department and the Technology Studies Department also have won regional and national honors in recent months. In addition, Teacher Education and Leadership Studies have been recognized by peers as the top programs in the country.
"We offer a high-tech, high-touch learning environment that is unequalled in the state or the region," he said. "All our students graduate fully computer literate and computer flexible, and they have close contact with faculty. Our average class size is 17 students. Am I right that Fort Hays State offers the best undergraduate education in Kansas? Our record enrollment proves that students voted with their feet this fall and showed that they agree with me."
President Hammond said he expects the economic downturn to continue for three years, so Fort Hays State will continue to promote its "Affordable Success" theme with a goal of growing 10 percent in each of the next two years.
The president, accompanied by Debra Prideaux, executive director for Alumni/Governmental Relations, and Kent Steward, director of University Relations, made nearly 40 stops in 19 cities in three states during the weeklong tour. He met with alumni, legislators, civic organizations and the media.
This year, because of an initiative by the Kansas Board of Regents to lower tuition for students from adjoining states, President Hammond extended the annual media tour to include Burlington, CO, and McCook, NE.