Accessible education for Kansans: FHSU president uses his annual media tour to discuss affordability and opportunities in distance education

Responding to changing needs for higher education and to a struggling economy, Fort Hays State University has implemented measures to make a college education affordable for all Kansans and accessible both on campus and at a distance through its Virtual College. As a result, enrollment at the Kansas Board of Regents institution in Hays has more than doubled over the past decade.

Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, is spending the week of Oct. 25 through 29 touring the length and breadth of Kansas to discuss current issues in higher education and steps the university has taken to make education accessible to all Kansans during difficult economic times.

"The old educational model is broken," the president said. "Not too many years ago, typical Kansans expected to graduate from high school, perhaps get an associate or college degree, and then spend the rest of their lives working in one profession. Now Kansans may find themselves in a job that did not even exist when they were attending college, so they have to return for additional coursework, certificates and degrees in order to advance in their careers. We make it possible for Kansans to get the additional education they need, wherever and whenever they need it."

As a result, FHSU's growth has been extraordinary. "From 5,506 students in the fall semester of the year 2000, we reported 11,883 students this fall," the president said. "Our enrollment has more than doubled since the turn of the century."

FHSU's Virtual College, which delivers courses to place-bound students at locations and times that fit their busy schedules through various formats, including but not limited to online coursework via the Internet, has played a major role in that growth.

FHSU has a long history of providing distance education to Kansans, dating back to 1911 when it created a "Correspondence Department" to solve the problem of the numerous teachers who could not afford to travel to Hays for their continuing education needs. By adapting emerging technology to address the needs of place-bound Kansans, FHSU has offered online degree programs since 1999.

"The Virtual College delivers more than 40 degree and certificate programs online and is a leader worldwide in offering distance education programs," President Hammond said. "Today more than 3,000 Kansans are enrolled in Virtual College degree programs. The Virtual College currently serves students from every county in Kansas and has students from 28 countries enrolled in degree programs."

In addition, FHSU is the largest non-Chinese provider of higher education in China. "If we can deliver a high-quality education to 3,500 Chinese students and to a Samoan student on dial-up Internet access, we can deliver a high-quality education anywhere in Kansas," the president said. "We offer tremendous support for Virtual College students -- tutoring, a help desk, a writing center and many other services. Our goal is to make the virtual learning experience every bit as great as the on-campus learning experience."

He also noted that FHSU had established 2+2 agreements with community colleges statewide in response to the needs of students who are place-bound and cannot attend the university in a traditional way. This allows those students to transition easily and efficiently into FHSU online programs to complete bachelor degrees and earn master degrees.

Kansas is a patriotic state, with a large number of Kansans serving in the military. "The Virtual College is committed to bringing them back to Kansas through our educational programs," President Hammond said. "In keeping with the FHSU commitment to provide a forward-thinking, world-ready education, we have been officially recognized as a 'military friendly' university, and our students who are in the Armed Forces bring experiences and world perspectives into the virtual classroom that broaden the education of other Kansans. By offering a high-quality education that is accessible to all Kansans, wherever they might be in the state or around the world, FHSU is making a significant contribution to the effort to keep Kansas dollars in Kansas."

During his tour of the state, the president is also reporting on other areas of progress at FHSU over the past decade and the steps that are being taken to align the university's strategic planning with the Foresight 2020 plan recently unveiled by the Board of Regents.

Part of the process will be a formal alignment with the North Central Kansas Technical College, which has campuses in both Beloit and FHSU's home city of Hays. "This will not be a merger," President Hammond emphasized. "Both institutions will remain distinct entities, but some functions, such as business and student-affairs functions, may be combined. We believe this will enable both institutions to better meet the needs of the citizens of Kansas."

President Hammond has announced a theme for each academic year during his more than two decades at the helm of FHSU, and his theme for the 2010-2011 academic year is "The Age of the Unthinkable," which acknowledges the financial challenges and changing demands that make for so much uncertainty in higher education. In spite of that uncertainty, the president insisted that FHSU's performance over the past decade demonstrated why it could be confident about the future:

In addition to doubling its enrollment since the year 2000, over the past five years FHSU grew 33.0 percent compared to 11.3 percent at the next highest Regents school, Pittsburg State University. FHSU also was the leader in Kansans served over that five-year period, with growth of 8.1 percent compared to 6.5 percent at the second place school.

At $227, FHSU had the lowest cost of production per credit hour of any of the Regents schools, and at 5.9 percent, FHSU also had the lowest increase in cost over the past five years. The next lowest, respectively, were $256 and 24.2 percent.

Costs for students
FHSU is still the best buy within the Regents system. Tuition this year is $1,473 at FHSU compared to $3,284 at the University of Kansas, for example.

The increase in retention, which the Regents define as moving on from the freshman year to the second year, increased over the past four years by 9.3 percent at FHSU compared to 3.6 percent at Wichita State, which was second best.

In terms of degrees granted, FHSU was off the charts. As a direct result of growth in enrollment, 2,290 degrees were granted in 2009, representing a five-year increase at FHSU of 84 percent, compared to just 13 percent at Pittsburg State University, which had the second highest increase.

President Hammond also talked about goals and initiatives for the immediate future. He said FHSU would expand the Western Kansas Educational Compact, the partnership between FHSU and western Kansas community colleges that has become dormant in recent years. Also, FHSU will continue to increase Hispanic enrollments, which more than doubled from 204 students five years ago to 493 students this year.

"At FHSU, we will ensure that students earn degrees and certifications that equip them for productive careers with an emphasis on communication skills, which include speaking, writing and the effective use of new technology," he said. "FHSU will align its academic programs with the needs of the workplace so that graduates bring the needed skill sets to their jobs in business and industry. The Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science is a prime example. The state academy, based at FHSU, serves the best and brightest high school juniors and seniors from across the state with an emphasis on encouraging them to remain in Kansas."

"The China enrollment will level off at about 4,000 because that is the quota set by the Chinese government," President Hammond said in conclusion. "I think we can grow the Virtual College as much as we want. We can grow it in direct proportion to how many resources we put into it. Everything we can do to grow the on-campus enrollment we need to do, because the on-campus environment is the key to knowledge, to an excellent faculty and to where we maintain quality control."

Following a news conference this morning on the Hays campus, President Hammond will visit at newspapers, radio and television stations, and with community leaders, alumni and friends of the university in 14 other Kansas cities.

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