Is college the key to success? Many in Wichita say no

The walkway near the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University is packed with students during the first week of school in 2011.
The walkway near the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University is packed with students during the first week of school in 2011. The Wichita Eagle

Geoffrey Canada stood before a room full of community leaders at a Kansas Health Foundation symposium recently and shared his personal rule of thumb.

"When you're faced with something and you don't know what the answer is," he said, "always do what rich people do."

The audience of nearly 200 teachers, health care workers, elected officials and others chuckled.

Canada smiled and continued.

"I have yet to meet a wealthy individual who has any other expectation for their child other than ... going to college," said Canada, an education activist and former director of the Harlem Children's Zone.

"I've yet to see anyone with money who said, 'You know what? I've got three kids: You'll go to the University of Kansas. And you, I think I'm gonna send you to Notre Dame. But you ... I'm thinking hairdresser school.' Never heard of it."

In the view of most middle- and upper-class families in America, Canada says, the path to success and a happy life goes straight through college. Graduate from high school, and there's just one question: Have you bought your dorm-room fridge yet?

That's why the central mission of the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit organization for children in poverty in New York City, is getting kids into four-year colleges and helping them graduate.

But that isn't the pervading thought in Wichita.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans were asked: "Would you say a college education is extremely important, very important, somewhat important or not too important in helping a young person succeed in the world today?"

Nationwide, about 77 percent of respondents said college is extremely or very important.

In Wichita, 54 percent said so.

In the same survey, only a third of Wichitans said colleges and universities "have had a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days," compared with 55 percent nationwide.

"I've never been in a city where people are so willing, proactively, to talk negatively about higher education institutions and about higher education in general," said James Chung, a Wichita-raised economist analyzing the city's strengths and challenges as part of the Wichita Community Foundation's Focus Forward project.

"I turned to one of my colleagues ... and said, 'I hope I don't keep hearing this.' Because this is unusually prevalent here."

Not the only option

So what's the issue? Are Wichita residents more skeptical of higher education than people elsewhere? Or were Wichitans in the survey sending a message that "college" — in the form of a diploma from a major four-year university — is no longer the only path to success?

"It really depends on how you look at it. Some people don't consider trade school a form of college," said Panya Amphone-Suh, 21, a college student in his fifth year at Friends University in Wichita, where he is pursuing degrees in music education and math.

"Lots of students in Wichita that I know of either go to trade school or straight into the workforce if they don't attend college. We need people who are building planes, working on electric wires, plumbing and other services," he said.

"This is not to say that they don't value college education, but some know that it is not the only option."

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson agrees. During the recent symposium where Canada shared his singular commitment to four-year universities, Watson shot back: "In 2018, I think that's the wrong message for Kansas."

The workforce has changed, Watson says — workers with a vocational certificate or associate degree often out-earn college graduates — and our perspective on education needs to change with it.

About three-quarters of the jobs in Kansas require "two pieces of paper," Watson said — a high school diploma and something else, such as a certification or two-year degree. Only about 44 percent of Kansas adults have that. The rest have only a high school diploma, if that, and many are in debt for a college education they never completed.

"I think we're chasing this dream, trying to make every kid go to Pitt State or KU or Harvard, when that's not necessarily what's required to have a good, middle-class lifestyle."

College aspirations

But what about other, less tangible benefits of college education? And what effect can college aspirations and educational achievement have on larger communities?

Chung, who grew up in Wichita and graduated from Wichita Collegiate School before heading to Harvard University, says Wichita's marked negativity about college could be one of the things holding us back as a city.

In a recent report, Chung noted that every city comparable to Wichita in the central U.S. grew faster than the national average since 2010. But not Wichita.

"I'm not overly concerned about one singular data point. I am concerned about the general patterns," Chung said. "And it's hard to build a healthy economy in a city that is not expanding its educational attainment."

Another startling fact: When Wichita kids go away to college, the vast majority never come back.

Although Wichita accounts for nearly a quarter of the state's population, fewer than 8 percent of Kansas State University graduates and 3 percent of University of Kansas graduates choose to live here after college.

"That's a clear market signal that there's something a little bit off" about Wichita, Chung said.

Wichita's manufacturing-heavy economy doesn't explain the discrepancy in attitudes either, he added. He pointed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a Midwestern manufacturing city that several years ago was "running the risk of being another Detroit."

The city leveraged its higher education institution, Kirkwood Community College, which partnered with local employers to promote the value of post-secondary degrees. In that community of 200,000 residents, about 40,000 people a year enroll in classes "to sharpen the saw," Chung said.

"That made it a lot easier for that city to become an advanced manufacturing city," he said. "It doesn't have to be a four-year college.

"Other cities have done a phenomenal job of balancing out their workforce, providing the right levels of education for their communities and attracting talent at all levels of education. And they have more well-rounded economies and stronger economies."

Lower opinion of college

Wichita's attitude toward college reflects a national trend: People's overall opinion of universities, particularly among those who identify as conservative, is going down.

In a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) said that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 percent in 2016. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents (72 percent) said colleges and universities have a positive effect.

Analysts point to a variety of reasons for the shift, including controversies over campus "safe spaces" and free speech, President Donald Trump's call to convert community colleges to vocational schools and a frustration with the rising cost of college.

Whatever the case, Wichita sits in the heart of a deep red state, and even local university leaders seem to have gotten the message. During a meeting this spring, Wichita State University president John Bardo told members of the unclassified professional senate that creating "an elite little liberal arts college" at WSU "ain't gonna work."

According to the WSU student newspaper, Bardo defended the university's renewed focus on business, engineering and applied research, saying WSU was founded "to serve the working people of Wichita, not to serve the intellectual elite."

Earlier this month, WSU's College of Education renamed itself the College of Applied Studies, a change "made to better reflect the broad range of educational and applied learning offerings the college provides," officials said.

Some conservative and libertarian pundits, including Bryan Caplan, a Princeton-educated economist and author of the new book "The Case Against Education," have even declared college a "massive waste" of time, money and public investment.

"Should we really be encouraging more people to go (to college)? If people are actually acquiring a lot of useful skills in school, then it is an investment in our human capital," Caplan told Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

"On the other hand, if the main thing you're doing is jumping through hoops and showing off, it's really a socially wasteful process. ... It's extremely wasteful for society."

Is education a bad word?

Has college — or education in general — become a bad word?

"I would hope not," said Alicia Thompson, superintendent of Wichita schools. "I would hope that our community would embrace continuous learning, continuous opportunities for advancement."

Kristina Everingham, a family and community engagement specialist at Child Start, said too many people have lost sight of the real value of college, which goes beyond income or status.

"College for me was never only about getting a career," she said. "It was about building critical thinking skills, understanding how to hold public discourse when people disagree, how to appreciate great literature and art ... how to make sure I do my part to be a well-rounded and informed citizen."

Thompson said schools need to rethink what it means to be successful, and they should do a better job of directing students toward whatever their passion might be. That could be an Ivy League school, a technical certificate, an associate degree or a career in the military, she said.

"I don't think we have done, as a community, a good job of really exploring that and helping families understand the variety of ways in which kids can continue to learn and still make a good living," Thompson said.

This fall, four Wichita high schools will offer the state's first aviation technical education pathway, training students in aircraft production and maintenance and leading them toward certificates that could land them jobs at Textron Aviation or other plants immediately after graduation.

The hardest sell for such a program, Thompson said, might be students' families. There are many parents who still view a college diploma as the ultimate goal and vocational education as a consolation prize.

Watson, the education commissioner, said what's needed is a cultural shift.

"There's a message we've been sending too long, that skilled work is less desirable than accounting or other so-called professional work," he said. "Our message needs to be: It's all valuable."