A year ago this week, Gov. Mark Parkinson gave a bold speech in which he urged the Kansas Board of Regents to improve the state's higher education programs and national profiles over the next 10 years. And he set a dramatic goal that at least one state university should place in the top 50 in U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of best universities.
Well, the latest college ranking is out, and the universities actually lost ground this past year. For example, the University of Kansas, which has the state's highest ranking, dropped from 98th place last year to 104th.
The slip doesn't mean that the regents and the universities aren't working at improving quality and stature. Even before Parkinson's speech, the regents had begun developing a new strategic agenda for higher education, including technical and community colleges.
A draft of that plan will be presented to the regents next month. It contains six goals with measurable objectives, such as increasing retention and graduation rates by 10 percent by 2020.
Improving graduation rates is particularly important to improving the universities' rankings, as it is a key measurement used by U.S. News. And one way to improve graduation rates is to make sure incoming students are ready for the rigor of college.
Toward that end, a regents task force met Wednesday with K-12 school officials to discuss proposed changes to the state's qualified-admissions policy for instate students. The regents will consider the recommendations either next month or in October.
Regents chairman Gary Sherrer told The Eagle editorial board that the initial changes would be "fairly modest." For example, one likely change is to require all Kansas students to complete a specific curriculum in high school in order to attend a regents university. Currently, that is optional.
Others have argued that the state needs to significantly increase admission standards in order to compete with other schools. For example, KU had the second-highest admission acceptance rate in the Big 12 Conference last year at 91 percent. At least partly as a result, KU had a graduation rate of only 61 percent, and its freshman retention rate of 80 percent was the lowest in the Big 12. In comparison, the University of Texas had a 45 percent acceptance rate last year, retained 92 percent of its freshmen and had an 81 percent graduation rate.
But the regents don't want to overreach in raising admission standards, Sherrer said, thus disenfranchising a lot of Kansas students. "Accessibility is really a big issue to us," he said.
Sherrer is also wisely cautious about allowing one magazine's ranking system to set policies that may not be in the state's best interests. Still, he acknowledged that the national rankings matter, like it or not.
Improving the universities will be challenging, particularly when they have experienced double-digit cuts in state funding. But the success of our state depends upon it.