Education

Bill would allow technical college to merge with Wichita State

Wichita State electrical engineering student Brent Duncan programs a robotic arm at the Wichita Area Technical College. (Feb. 13, 2015)
Wichita State electrical engineering student Brent Duncan programs a robotic arm at the Wichita Area Technical College. (Feb. 13, 2015) File photo

Wichita Area Technical College could merge with Wichita State University under a bill in the Kansas Legislature.

Senate Bill 451 would allow the technical college to become the Wichita State University School of Technology and Applied Science. The school would be governed by WSU.

The schools have been discussing a possible merger or consolidation for months.

Wichita Area Technical College president Sheree Utash says the bill will allow the schools to continue those talks and “develop a plan that would take probably a couple of years to do.”

Officials from both schools say the potential merger is about combining resources and bringing out the best parts of both schools.

WATC offers technical certificates and introductory classes at cheaper per-credit costs than WSU. Officials say they want to keep WATC courses inexpensive and accessible while making a transition to WSU or other state schools for a two- or a four-year degree more seamless for students.

“We want to maintain the open access that WATC has while having the qualified admissions that WSU currently has,” Wichita State provost Tony Vizzini said.

What SB 451 does

Under the bill, the technical college’s governing board would become the industry advisory board for the school. WSU President John Bardo would appoint its members.

“It continues to keep the needs of business and industry at the forefront of this new entity,” Utash said.

Technical college faculty and staff “who are necessary, in the opinion of the president of Wichita State University” would become WSU employees, according to the bill.

I’m sure there will be some restructuring, but I just want to be clear: It’s really less about the financial efficiencies that we can gain and it’s more about providing our students with more expansive opportunities.

WATC Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Unruh

Greg Unruh, the technical college’s vice president of finance and administration, says he doesn’t expect the school to lose faculty or staff.

“We don’t anticipate there being any type of reduction in head count through this process,” Unruh said. “I’m sure there will be some restructuring, but I just want to be clear: It’s really less about the financial efficiencies that we can gain and it’s more about providing our students with more expansive opportunities.”

The school would be eligible for the same funding sources as now.

Degrees from the new school would carry the Wichita State University name.

“They would enroll through WSU and they would graduate from WSU,” Utash said. “The degrees that we currently give today would be WSU degrees instead of WATC degrees.”

Utash says this would expand upon Shocker Pathway, a program that allows students to earn a two-year associate of arts degree from WSU after beginning studies at WATC.

“It takes that Shocker Pathway and cements it into the fabric of the university,” Utash said. “You would start with the same concept of taking your first 50 hours within the new school and then you would move into one of the other colleges to finish your degree.”

The addition of a new school could lead Wichita State to restructure some areas of study, Vizzini said.

“We’ve got programs that might move over into that school because it’s the more appropriate location for it,” he said.

The process

If the bill passed the Legislature, the Kansas Board of Regents still would have to greenlight it. It would also need approval from the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits post-secondary institutions in 19 states.

It’s a little bit like cooking breakfast where everything needs to be ready at the same time.

Board of Regents CEO Blake Flanders

“It’s a little bit like cooking breakfast where everything needs to be ready at the same time,” said Board of Regents CEO Blake Flanders.

Both schools would want to keep their current accreditation.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, one of the lawmakers backing the bill, said it was developed with input from WSU and the technical college.

“It gives WSU just one more tool for attracting students and diversifying what we can do,” he said, adding that it would help counteract what he called an unfortunate stigma around vocational schools.

“Other states have done this because just of a perception that it’s not as good,” he said. “When we know that less than 30 percent of Kansas kids are not going to graduate from a state university, what are we going to do to encourage more kids to go to school? So this is a way to do that.”

The bill probably will have a hearing in March, said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Contributing: Bryan Lowry of the Wichita Eagle.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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