On Tuesday, Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson began the annual Kansas Board of Regents retreat with remarks about the state’s public higher education system. Thursday, Pittsburg State President Dr. Steve Scott gave his reactions.

On Tuesday, Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson began the annual Kansas Board of Regents retreat with remarks about the state’s public higher education system. Thursday, Pittsburg State President Dr. Steve Scott gave his reactions.

Parkinson’s statements
Parkinson made sure to note he was supportive of the Kansas Board of Regents, but then laid out a 10-year, five-point plan for improving Kansas higher education.
Those steps include:
1) at least one national university in the top 50 of national rankings. This will likely be the University of Kansas because it is closest to the top 50, currently ranked 96th.
2) a second university ranked in the top 100. Parkinson notes this is likely Kansas State, which is currently in the third tier of universities, between 134th and 196th out of 260 schools.
3) no Kansas institution in the 4th tier of rankings. The only school in the 4th tier is Wichita State.
4) Improve rankings for specialty programs. This includes the KU law and medical schools in the top 50, the K-State veterinarian school in the top 10, all engineering schools in the top 100 and to consider a dental school at Wichita State.
5) Improving retention and graduation rates above the norm for peer institutions and the national norm.
The Board of Regents reacted to the speech with a statement from Chairwoman Jill Docking.
“It’s clear that higher education is one of the Governor’s top public policy priorities, and we both share the belief that higher education is more important today than ever before,” Docking said. “The Governor and the Board share many of the same goals, which include producing qualified and trained workers for the Kansas economy, increasing the amount of federal research funding our universities receive, enhancing technical education in Kansas, and improving the retention and graduation rates at our six state universities.”
Parkinson also laid out three methods to academic accountability. First of all, Parkinson wants to see an increase in the national rankings of the schools. Second, he would like the retention and graduation rates to rise. Last, he would like to see the tracking of graduate placement in businesses.

PSU rankings
Pittsburg State president Dr. Steve Scott has not had much time to look at Parkinson’s statement. That said, he still had plenty to say in regard to the speech.
PSU falls in the third tier of master’s programs in the Midwest, which only compares schools that offer up to master’s degrees. That means the team ranks between the 72nd and 104th schools of the 141 schools.
Washburn rates 36th. Emporia State and Fort Hays State also rate in the third tier. Missouri Southern is not in this comparison, but Southeast Missouri State is 71st and Missouri State is 40th.
“We have not focused our attention on the rankings. Right now, the current state of rankings is that people are backing away from them. It’s important to have means for comparison,” Scott said. “But the comparison with rankings is complicated. Schools have different admissions policies, different admission requirements, different state governments, different levels of funding. It’s difficult to compare, but it is important.”

Parkinson cited retention and graduation rates for Pittsburg State and all other state schools that lag behind national and peer group rates.
The national graduation average, for instance, is 60 percent for freshmen that graduate from a four-year school within six years. Pittsburg State comes in at 51 percent, behind the national average, Kansas State (58 percent), KU (59 percent), and Washburn (52 percent). Behind PSU is Fort Hays State (49 percent) and Emporia State (44 percent).
However, on the retention side of things, Pittsburg State is doing quite well. Retention is the percent of freshmen who finish the first year and return for the second. PSU comes in third in the state, behind KU and K-State, at 81 and 79 percent each. PSU’s 75 percent mark is better than Emporia State’s 71 percent, Wichita State’s 69 percent, Fort Hays State’s 67 percent and Washburn’s 65 percent.
In comparison to peer groups, Parkinson said that Washburn excels, but other institutions are behind.
Dr. Scott, however, takes issue with the way these rates are counted.
“Say a student goes for one year to Pittsburg State, then goes for three years to Kansas and gets their degree,” Scott said. “Most people would agree that is a success for both... That sort of ‘swirling’ student graduate these days and has hours from five or six institutions.”
Scott said he has always believed that graduation and retention data is underreported. He noted that this year, PSU is expecting 600 transfer students from other schools that will not count for PSU graduation and retention rates.
Scott also noted a student who went to Labette Community College for two years before transferring to PSU to graduate. That would not, for example, show up in the data, Scott said. However, he noted work by the Board of Regents to count student-by-student data.

Graduate placement
While Parkinson did not specifically note any plans with graduate placement, Scott said that graduate placement is the area in which he would like to focus.
“We have a long history of doing well in placing our graduates,” Scott said. “We have made an intentional effort to match our programs with the workforce. We don’t need to be producing people in an area of oversupply. The market takes care of some of that, certainly, but we make a direct effort in areas that are growing like teacher education, nursing and construction.”

Other issues
Scott noted that Pittsburg State has a distinct advantage over other schools of its size: The community support.
“I guess the thing that is interesting in all of this is the tremendous support for this university we get from our graduates,” Scott said. “We have people in their 80s, 70s and down to their 20s who are involved in careers they enjoy in their life’s work here. There’s a lot of word from a lot of people that went to this school generations ago who say this school still has an impact on them.”
Parkinson also asked that each of the institutions sets up a strategic plan with benchmarks for how to increase in national ranking and rates over the next 10 years. Scott said details of what Parkinson is looking for at this point are still unknown, but he expects PSU to start work as soon as they can.
“We are clearly focused on developing a strategic plan that puts us on the path of continuous improvement,” Scott said. “He mentions benchmarks and thresholds and other kinds of things that we think are important, and I’m sure those things will align. The board [of Regents] has been out in front of some of this, they just have not been completely ready to launch, so they’ve kept quiet.”

Funding and future
In theory, PSU can do all of these things. In practice, it may be more difficult. Dr. Scott said that between ever-increasing student numbers and ever-decreasing state funding, there may be issues down the road.
“With the recession and the impact on colleges, we typically get growth,” Scott said. “I’m anticipating that we will most likely teach more students this year, and we will have less money to do it.”
Parkinson noted this concern in some ways, yet also showed his hope for a change in Kansas higher education.
“The Kansas Legislature’s willingness to support higher education has been spotty at best. I am aware of that,” Parkinson said. “But my belief is that the Legislature will fund success. So, if you present strategic plans that show an upward path and the funding needs to get there, I’m confident that the Legislature and alumni will fund the plans. I know it’s easy to say that, but I genuinely believe it. People want a plan. They want leadership. And when they see leadership with a plan, they will usually follow.”

Andrew Nash can be reached at andrew.nash@morningsun.net or by calling 231-2600 ext. 132.