WSU, WATC merger allows students to get a GED to a PhD under one program

Adam Piacenza, foreground, and other students at Wichita Area Technical College, work on motion control projects in the Industrial Automations class at their campus.
Adam Piacenza, foreground, and other students at Wichita Area Technical College, work on motion control projects in the Industrial Automations class at their campus. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita Area Technical College is changing more than just its name and school colors this year.

As part of an affiliation with Wichita State University set to take effect July 1, WATC becomes the WSU Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology. WATC students become WSU students and WATC instructors become WSU employees.

In many respects, the school will operate as before. It will continue its open admission policy, charging students less for their education than four-year universities and offering the same kinds of training in technical fields it has in the past.

But the affiliation gives those students who desire and qualify a more direct path to four-year college degrees and more.

“We’ve created an educational continuum from GED to PhD under one umbrella,” WATC President Sheree Utash said. “I think that’s a really important thing for this community.”

Rick Muma, interim provost at WSU, said the two schools already cooperate “but when we’re together, there are less barriers. When dealing with a student who’s a WATC student and not a WSU student, the fact that we’re separate creates barriers for them. They can’t image the pathway to what’s greater, if that’s what they desire.”

Officials at the two schools say the move should also benefit the local economy by producing better-qualified workers as well as innovations in research and teaching.

WATC is the state’s largest technical college, with 3,600 students at the main campus on north Webb road and two satellite locations. The school offers more than 100 degree and certificate options in five areas: aviation, manufacturing, healthcare, business and police science, and specialized trades and transportation.

Expected benefits form the affiliation include:

▪ The development of new certificate and degree programs at WSU-WATC, as well as the likely creation of new four-year and advanced degrees at WSU. “For instance, we have a new degree in cyber security,” Utash said. “Credits will be transferable to possibly a new degree that WSU is putting together through its College of Education.”

▪ The option for WSU-WATC students to live in WSU housing and take part in campus activities such as athletic events through a student fee. The availability of that housing should help the Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology attract students from around the region, nation and world. “We think there are going to be some (WSU-WATC) students, probably not a whole lot initially” who live on campus, Muma said.

▪ The expansion of WSU’s student recruitment efforts, which already reach around the world, to include technical training. “We’re going to be able to cast a wider net,” Utash said.

▪ The addition of 4,000 full-time students to WSU’s enrollment, helping it surpass Fort Hays State University as the state’s third-largest university and bringing it closer to the school’s goal of 22,000 students. WSU currently has about 15,000 students.

The affiliation isn’t a full-blown merger, as was originally proposed, although it’s close. The new school will keep its own accreditation process and receive federal and state funds targeted for technical schools. But the school will be run by WSU, under ultimate authority of the Kansas Board of Regents. WATC’s current governing board will become an industry advisory board, appointed by WSU’s president. Utash will become president of the the WSU Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology, responsible for day-to-day management but reporting to WSU President John Bardo.

No immediate changes are foreseen in personnel at either school.

The new partners have been collaborating for several years. In 2012, they created the National Center for Aviation Training, which trains workers for jobs in the aviation industry. In 2015, they launched “Shocker Pathway,” which lets students who start at WATC finish a two-year associates of arts degree at WSU.

“We have a lot of (students) get their degree,” Utash said. “While they’re there, we’re talking to them about pathways so they can go to work, see a progression of what a career ladder looks like, and what the education looks like.”

Other WATC students already have good technical jobs, Muma noted, but need additional education to move into management roles.

The WSU Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology will be the third incarnation of the technical school, which began life in 1965 as the Wichita Area Vocational-Technical School.

Utash noted that the WATC bookstore on Webb Road “is already full of Shocker apparel,” as the school transitions from blue and green colors to black and yellow.

“When we look back on this in five years,” she said, “I think there will be many, many benefits that we haven’t even identified.”