Where Kansas’ public universities saw enrollment declines, private colleges found stability during pandemic

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
In a difficult year for higher education generally, Kansas' private colleges, such as McPherson College, were buoyed by out-of-state students who saw Kansas as an oasis during the pandemic for academics and athletics.

Christi Hopkins still remembers fielding the calls and talking over Zoom in spring and summer 2020 with parents who were desperate to know if their high school seniors would be safe at McPherson College in central Kansas.

The college was still figuring out its own response, but Hopkins, the vice president for enrollment management at the private college, still felt comfortable in reassuring those parents that yes, the college would do everything it could to keep its small student body safe amid the pandemic.

"We were able to say with confidence that we would take care of their students," Hopkins said. "There's always uncertainty when you send your children away, but to send them away during a pandemic is so much more uncertain."

But if COVID-19 anxieties kept some would-have-been freshmen from setting foot on college campuses this past fall, the pandemic also led to an increase in out-of-state students at private colleges like McPherson College, which saw a 6.1% surge in that student group.

In a year where most colleges have seen a drop in students because of the high school senior class of 2020 skipping or forgoing post-secondary education, Kansas’ private colleges bucked that trend and either kept headcounts stable or found ways to attract more students onto their campuses.

And while not necessarily looking specifically to grow, it’s a trend that the colleges see as a chance to introduce more high school students to what a private, independent education could do for them.

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, total undergraduate headcount at 20 private colleges, which are part of the Kansas Independent College Association, actually increased, from 14,047 students to 14,379 students (a 2.1% increase). In comparison, fall headcount numbers at the state universities fell by 3.5% over that same time period, from 94,630 to 91,282 students.

Out-of-state students saw Kansas as a pandemic 'oasis'

Matt Lindsey, KICA president, said he believes the phenomenon of better-than-expected enrollment at the private colleges is likely because of a few particular reasons.

First, Kansas' independent colleges weren't immune to the same downward trend in Kansas high school students' college-going rate, which was exacerbated by the effect the pandemic had on first-year freshman enrollment rates all around the country.

But any trends down in enrollment were buoyed by a significant increase in the number of out-of-state students, who Lindsey said might have seen the more rural Kansas as an "oasis" during spring and summer 2020, when students either finalized or switched plans for their 2020-2021 college years.

Of the 20 colleges in KICA, 18 participate in intercollegiate sports as well. Lindsey said that could have also helped attract student-athletes to institutions where they would be more likely to actually compete and use their athletics scholarships.

All but one of the Kansas private colleges — Newman University competing in NCAA Division II — play in relatively smaller associations and leagues. That's in comparison to some of the bigger college athletic conferences, which faced significant uncertainty as to whether their seasons would actually take place.

"We get a lot of kids who go to school and want to continue to play sports, but they're not going to be NCAA DI athletes," Lindsey said. "They want to use their sports to go to college, but they're not using sports as their road to their future as much as they're using it as their tool to get a college degree."

More: Kansas' public colleges, universities see 8.1% drop in enrollment

Additionally, many students at the private colleges also attend on performance-based scholarships for their skills in music, theater and dance.

Another aspect that Lindsey says he thinks helped Kansas' private colleges keep enrollment level was that the private colleges — which tend to be a fraction of the size of state universities like K-State and KU — offer a smaller, more personal atmosphere that some students sought during the pandemic year.

Much of that is because 19 of the 20 KICA colleges are rooted in some sort of Christian faith origin, which most have held to a degree in more modern years. That has helped make the campuses, which could be states away from students' families, feel more like home during an uncertain year, Lindsey said.

Even beyond the faith-based element, some students — but particularly first-generation and low-income students, like many Latino students in southwest Kansas — likely wanted a college education at an institution that felt more like a family and where they would be less likely to feel lost among a sea of students, Lindsey said.

Why more out-of-state students could lead to a pipeline effect

As Kansas' state universities have faced decreasing enrollment over the past several years, one strategy is to offer lower tuition for students from certain states.

While that may seem counterintuitive to a university's financial health because of reduced tuition revenue, it is actually a strategic gamble that by making inroads into new markets of high school students or bolstering ties in existing ones, any short-term revenue loss will ultimately lead to increased numbers of students and their tuition dollars in subsequent years.

But while the state universities take on some risk that reduced enrollment strategy might not pay off, Kansas' private colleges see a chance to benefit from the unanticipated increase in out-of-state enrollment this past year. Headcount enrollment at their Kansas campuses increased from 41.1% in fall 2019 to 48% in fall 2020.

"Once you see a school start to have a few students from an out-of-state community, and they tell the experience of how good an experience they had at a school like the University of St. Mary. ... Word starts to get around their peers, and that starts to feed itself," Lindsey said.

That can also be the case when the colleges are of a certain denomination, like Manhattan Christian College, which has a sizable population of students from Arizona who come from the college's denomination.

The Automotive Restoration Technology Program at McPherson College teaches students all aspects of auto restoration, and students graduate with a liberal arts degree.

Jay Leno and how nonprofit colleges find their niches

There are about 800 private non-profit colleges across the U.S., Lindsey said, and the vast majority are small and values-oriented, so to compete, Kansas' private colleges have to find something to differentiate them.

Most of them have done so by highlighting some part of their identity, like Benedictine College in Atchison, which Lindsey said has focused on becoming "the Catholic college in America."

But others have tried to make names for themselves in certain fields or degree programs, such as McPherson College, where the college's pandemic growth is just the latest year in a five-year incline in the student body population, having gone from about 700 undergraduate students in 2016 to about 840 in fall 2020, Hopkins said.

Much of that growth has come from expanding programs like the automotive restoration technology program, which attracts students from all over the U.S.

More: Kansas K-12 starting to see evidence of learning loss, but most pressing is this year’s senior class

Started in 1976 with a generous gift by a local entrepreneur of more than 125 classic and antique cars, the program is now one of the best in the nation and the college is the only school to offer a full bachelor's degree in the subject.

The program even caught the attention of celebrity and vintage car collector Jay Leno, who has sponsored two scholarships at the school.

"You can't pick up a Car and Driver magazine and not see a McPherson College graduate being interviewed on something," Lindsey said. "If you care about classic cars, McPherson College is the place that jumps right out."

Similarly, Friends University in Wichita has grown its zoo science program to be one of the best in the country, in affiliation with the Sedgwick County Zoo.

"It's all part of this programmatic niche-building," Lindsey said.

Drawing students to small-town Kansas is hard. Keeping them can be harder.

There are several stages to the recruitment and admissions process, starting in high school. A prospective student must first apply, be admitted, and commit to the school before the most important step of all — actually attending the school.

But the following step is retention, and that can be more difficult for the private colleges, which are mostly in rural or sparsely populated parts of the state, Lindsey said.

That challenge is especially true for athletes, who sometimes come to the schools from urban cities where there might be more amenities.

"You might come out of Dallas or St. Louis, and you end up in Salina," he said. "It might not be what you think you're getting. Or you might go from Dallas to Hillsboro, Kansas, where you might think that you like the school, but it's 30 minutes to the nearest Walmart or there isn't a Starbucks nearby. Maybe it's not what you thought it would be."

It can be a culture shock that leads some students to leave the private colleges in search of more familiar options, he said.

"But I think as a whole, our enrollment is probably stickier because most students know what they're getting when they get here, and you can't disappear," Lindsey said. "The colleges are small enough that it's really hard to slip through the cracks."

More: Kansas Regents adopt transparency guidelines for firing tenured faculty as an olive branch

It's that small-town, family-like feel of the private colleges that Hopkins, the McPherson College vice president for enrollment, says sticks out to most prospective students and tends to be the biggest factor in a student's decision to attend colleges like McPherson.

That feeling can help override students' apprehension to factors like sticker-shock to tuition. At first glance, the college's $39,900 annual price tag might seem out-of-reach to students, Hopkins said, but on average, students only pay about half of that after various discounts and scholarships given by the university, bringing the cost of attendance to a comparable level to public institutions. 

But with more students having tried education at private colleges like McPherson, Hopkins and Lindsey believe there's room to grow Kansas' private colleges' profile, especially in emphasizing a more intimate and relational environment on their campuses.

"Before students are here, it can sometimes be a challenge, with them not understanding what our communities are, since you have to be on campus to experience it all," Hopkins said. "But once we get them on campus, we can show them who we are."