In a year of continual growth at Fort Hays State University, administrators said they were as committed to the nearby student pools as those far away.

“We are committed to meeting the education needs of southwest Kansas,” said Jeff Briggs, FHSU interim provost and vice president of academic affairs. “I think that's what we really want to make prevalent, and we want to make sure we find ways to do that. And we feel like we're doing a great job of doing that now and look forward to finding ways to improve that moving forward."

Briggs stepped in for FHSU President Tisa Mason, unavailable due to a longterm illness, last week for the college’s annual statewide media and alumni tour, which hit 31 stops in 12 cities over four days.

The key impetus for this year’s tour is the Fort Hays' growth, both in enrollment and facilities.

The college’s 15,523 enrollment — about 45 percent of which comes from virtual or online degree plans, 29 percent on-campus and 26 percent through partner programs in China — marks the 18th year of enrollment growth with 423 more students enrolled than last year, according to press materials from FHSU.

Briggs said the campus recently added two major student residence halls, totaling five new dorm facilities in six years, and the Center for Applied Technology and Sculpture. A new art and design building will open next year, and a student success center is coming down the pipeline, he said.

The growth is possible in part because of one of the college’s long-term goals and missions: keep tuition low, Briggs said. This semester, a student taking 15 credit hours would pay approximately $2,566 for a Kansas resident, $3,565 for residents of bordering states and $7,600 for non-residents, the lowest rates in the Midwest, he said.

Affordability and accessibility are important to the university, Briggs said. It allows the school to recruit more students, but also makes higher education possible to different socio-economic brackets, as well as non-traditional or place-bound students, he said.

This fall, 7,848 students, approximately half of the college’s total enrollment and nearly 70 percent of enrollment outside the China programs, are Kansans, up 3.6 percent from last year and 10 percent since 2008.

This semester, students hailed from all Kansas counties, though nearly half of Kansas enrollment came from virtual and in-person students from Finney, Ford, Ellis, Barton, Saline, Reno, Sedgwick, Butler, Shawnee, Douglas and Johnson counties. Finney and Ford counties show the highest numbers for southwest Kansas, according to an FHSU enrollment breakdown.

“When we take a look at the number of college-bound students that we have from our western Kansas rural communities, we get a very large percentage of those in our programs,” Briggs said.

Most Garden City Community College students that continue their education transfer to FHSU, and the community college is one of the university's top three feeder schools for transfers, said Hugo Perez, assistant director of admissions at FHSU.

As the closest four-year university to southwest Kansas, Briggs said, the campus engaged with the region via recruitment, orientation and virtual or satellite programming.

Besides sending admission counselors to high schools across the state, the school has made efforts to recruit and serve more Hispanic students, Perez said, with the goal of becoming a full-fledged Hispanic-serving institution, which requires at least 20 percent Hispanic enrollment.

“I think our administrators have seen future demographic growth of the trends on that … especially (in) southwest Kansas…” Perez said in answer to the college’s desire to serve the Hispanic community. “We don't want to be reactive, we want to be proactive.”

A multicultural recruiter has given admissions and recruitment presentations in English and Spanish in southwest Kansas cities like Garden City, Liberal and Ulysses, and works with parents of first-generation college students, he said.

This year, the college is gearing up for its fourth annual Hispanic College Institute, a free, four-day event that helps Hispanic high school students from Kansas, Missouri and Colorado, including many from southwest Kansas, apply for college, fill out financial aid forms, get to know the campus and present projects regarding social issues in their hometowns, Perez said. The winners of the latter event will win $1,000 scholarships to FHSU.

The program, this year expecting about 80 students, helps students, many of whom will be first-generation college students, orient to college life and form connections, giving them the confidence and foundation to take on leadership positions around campus down the line, Perez said.

Working with communities and community colleges throughout the region, FHSU also works to direct its services toward meeting student needs and filling educational and vocational gaps, such as in teacher education, health care, agribusiness and other areas, Briggs said.

In an effort to fill one of those gaps, the college has offered evening face-to-face bachelor's degree paths in social work through a cohort at GCCC, and has extended similar programs to Dodge City Community College and Seward County Community College in recent years, he said.

As FHSU continues to fill those gaps, Briggs said, it likely would lean into both online programs. Working or part-time students seem to prefer those programs due to their flexibility, and blended programs, such as for nursing, that would split instruction between online and face-to-face lessons.

"This area's important to us…” Briggs said of southwest Kansas. “As we identify those needs, then it's a matter of, 'How can we create the best delivery model for meeting those needs?' Because we know if we can educate people in place, those people will be more apt to stay in place and fill those professional gaps in their communities.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.