Why we are about to say goodbye to WATC – sort of

David Patterson, a student at the Wichita Area Technical College, works in the school’s Aviation Maintenance turbine engine class lab on Tuesday. (Oct. 18, 2016)
David Patterson, a student at the Wichita Area Technical College, works in the school’s Aviation Maintenance turbine engine class lab on Tuesday. (Oct. 18, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

The students in the aircraft engine mechanics class said this week they were perfectly happy attending Wichita Area Technical College.

They were there to get a good job and were not the slightest bit concerned about their school’s reputation or amenities.

Then someone asked about Shocker basketball tickets, and excitement rippled through the room.

The WATC is in the midst of merging with Wichita State University. In a couple of years, WATC students will likely get the same discount as WSU students for basketball games.

Although the original merger schedule has slipped because of political pushback from community colleges around the state, that appears to have been settled and the effort is back on track, say key players in both institutions.

The time line is now to have the institutions merge in the first half of 2018.

Overall, the merger is a pretty big deal, said WATC president Sheree Utash.

“It’s a big move, a huge move, and it does create a model that is not out there in higher education today,” Utash said. “We want to preserve the core of what WATC is today, but to do that, we also should look to the future.”

The schools’ leadership will return to the Kansas Legislature for enabling legislation in the upcoming session. The merger already has been approved by the Kansas Board of Regents and must still get the OK from the regional accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission.

What it means broadly is that the WATC will become a department of WSU.

It would be renamed Wichita State University School of Technology and Applied Sciences, or something similar. There may be a consolidation of the schools’ southern campuses: WATC’s in south Wichita and WSU’s in Derby.

Otherwise, the WATC would remain basically as it is now, in the same buildings with the same programs and staff members.

And, importantly for students, it would charge the lower WATC tuition and retain open admissions. Otherwise, it’s pretty transparent for the students.

“Once it has a new name, they would be WSU students,” said Rick Muma, associate vice president for academic affairs at WSU. “But they would still enter through that college, so from that respect, they won’t notice any difference.”

So why change?

The most-often-cited reason is to strengthen technical education in Wichita.

The two institutions are different, and the opportunity for both schools – and the community they operate in – has to do with too many students missing out on a chance for more education because of institutional gaps.

The WATC has a host of programs teaching specific technical jobs – from caring for invalids to repairing robots – that lead to one-year certificates or, when combined with general education classes such as English and math, a two-year associate of applied science degree. It has about 3,600 students, including a large number of high school students starting technical education through a state program.

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Its leaders pride themselves on providing real-world job training that is relevant to local industries. Although the college is now mostly housed in a modern facility on North Webb Road, the college experience still feels stripped-down and focused.

On the other hand, WSU is a large university with about 14,475 students. It has dozens of majors and buildings, undergraduate and graduate-level classes, sports and cultural amenities, dormitories and increasingly powerful research and economic development missions.

It is in the midst of developing the Innovation Campus, roughly doubling the size of the campus with corporate research buildings and engineering labs.

Shocker Pathway

The two schools recently created the Shocker Pathway, which allows students to take general education courses at the WATC plus a few more at WSU to finish with an associate of arts degree from WSU. The students then could continue at WSU for a bachelor’s degree.

It allows students to ease their way into WSU for less money than the traditional four years there.

But the merger is much broader, and trickier, than the Shocker Pathway. Most of the WATC’s technical programs don’t have corresponding bachelor’s degree-level programs at WSU. Most of the credits don’t transfer to WSU, because there’s nothing to transfer to.

The theory is that in the merged institution, all of those technical education courses would become part of a spectrum of education, in which mechanics could become engineers and medical assistants could get a master’s degree in nursing.

“They get a seamless career pathway,” said Utash, the WATC president. “A lot of our associate’s degree credits do not transfer. The idea is to build it so that it would transfer.”

It makes WSU a one-stop shop for technical education – and eliminates the distinction and stigma between technical and traditional college education, said Ray Frederick, a local businessman who has served as the WATC’s president and chairman and now chairs the technical education authority for the Kansas Board of Regents.

“It allows (WSU) to market itself as high school-to-Ph.D, if that’s your life’s goal,” Frederick said. “It’s a path with many exits, but we want them to know there is a path, if they choose to stay on it.”

Pros for both

For the institutions, the merger also has some upsides.

WSU, which has struggled to increase its student body, will add 3,600 students and gain access to student populations it didn’t have before.

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The WATC gets protection from the volatility of small institution budgeting. It will be part of a much larger institution that can absorb hits from any state budget cuts or other events, Utash said.

It also gets to sell its students on WSU amenities: dormitories, food service, sports, student athletics and more.

One danger that some observers have raised: Will the culture of the WATC get lost inside WSU?

Both sides say they understand the risk and have been clear that they don’t want the WATC to change its focus on the needs of industry.

“It’s really important for (WATC) to be able turn on a dime in the kinds of programs and training they offer,” said Muma, the WSU associate vice president. “We want that same kind of operation after the merger.”