Does Wichita have an anti-college attitude? Friends forum will explore why

Davis Administration Building at Friends University.
Davis Administration Building at Friends University. The Wichita Eagle

Does Wichita have an anti-college attitude?

Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, has heard that theory — most recently in a report by economist James Chung — and wants to explore the issue further.

“In the row where I was sitting (during Chung’s presentation), people were nodding their heads and saying, ‘Oh yeah, that confirms everything,” Fox said.

“Those nodding heads convinced me that I ought to see if there’s some way I could organize something where we can talk about this amongst ourselves.”

On Thursday, Fox will host a roundtable discussion about higher education in Wichita, exploring local perceptions and how to learn from them. The free event is 7 to 9 p.m. on the lower level of the Casado Campus Center at Friends University, 2100 W. University.

“Let’s talk about the impressions of college as an experience in general that we see in Wichita,” he said.

“Are negative feelings, to the extent they exist, more political or cultural? . . . And why would it be that maybe there’s more of this kind of attitude in Wichita than in other places?”

During a recent analysis of Wichita’s strengths and weaknesses, Chung pointed to a survey by the Pew Research Center, in which 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, only 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,” Chung said during his presentation.

During Thursday’s forum, a panel of educators, civic leaders and others will discuss the two data points and then open discussion to those who attend, Fox said.

Panelists include Wichita City Council members Pete Meitzner and Cindy Claycomb; Yolanda Camarena, president of the Kansas Hispanic Education and Development Foundation; state Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita; Chase Billingham, assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University; and Matt Lindsey, president of the Kansas Independent College Association.

It’s unclear from the survey data precisely why Wichita residents are more skeptical of higher education, or whether they may feel that “college” — in the form of a diploma from a major four-year university — is no longer the only path to success.

Fox said he hopes Thursday’s discussion will address whether higher education institutions in Wichita are preparing students for the workforce, and what they may need to do better.

“Most of the people who are participating in this or attending this are people who have some sort of stake in higher education,” he said.

“We want as much as possible to create a forum where people who have some serious beefs can express them . . . and we are mostly going to talk about how to fix, how to improve, and how to strengthen higher education.”