It’s not just K-12 schools that could be affected by the Kansas baby bust.

“We’re probably going to have less people in that pipeline,” says Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, and “that’s going to put a lot of pressure on colleges and the workforce.”

Indeed, a demographic “cliff” is coming for Kansas colleges and universities, Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Jon Rolph acknowledges. The number of Kansas high school graduates is expected to peak at 35,000 in 2026 before dropping to around 30,000 in the next few years after that.

“It has not gotten to us yet,” Rolph says of the bust. “I think we’re keenly aware of it. The national higher ed world has been talking about this. … ‘There’s a cliff coming.’”

For now, the Board of Regents can take comfort in a 2% increase in enrollment this fall, with Wichita State and the University of Kansas posting record enrollment highs. A couple of other institutions saw declines, but Emporia State University’s was the largest, 12.5%.

Before that happens, Rolph says, the Regents need to solve a more pressing problem. The “college-going” rate of Kansas high schoolers has declined over the past decade. If that issue can be addressed successfully, the shock of the baby bust may be less substantial. “If you recaptured where we were in 2015, you’ll have an offset” for the birth rate decline, Rolph says.

Still, there’s a fair amount of speculation that not all of Kansas’ public colleges and universities will survive the bust. The decline in enrollment at Emporia State University, and the subsequent termination of a number of tenured professors there, has only turned up the volume on those conjectures. 

“Can we sustain the same number of colleges?” Hill asks. “Probably not.”

Rolph has heard those questions as well. His answer? “It’s difficult to look that far out in the future and predict anything with reliability.”

The bust also raises workforce issues. Who will be around to fill Kansas’ jobs?

Mike Beene, Kansas’ assistant secretary of commerce, sees the problem coming. “I can see that hitting us in 15 years or something like that as those young adults mature into the workforce,” he says.

First, though, his aim is to focus on retaining and luring back all the young Kansans who leave the state to work and live elsewhere. The department is set in 2024 to embark on a three-year $2 million campaign to reach out to those former Kansans with the promise of high-tech and green jobs.

“We want to keep those child-bearing folks in Kansas,” Beene says, “and we want to align them with careers to keep their communities strong, and more importantly keep the state strong.”

Cover of Fall 2023 Journal

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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