In the 1980s, a little over 40 percent of Kansas high school graduates went on to Kansas universities. Since 25-30 percent of Kansas high school students were college-able, most eventually graduated. Kansas subsidized student tuition at the rate of $2 for every $1 a student paid. Both home economics and shop counted as science credits, a practice Kansas Education Commissioner Droegemueller defended because a majority of Kansas students never went to college.
Today, the percentage of Kansas high school graduates attending tertiary institutions is approaching 80 percent. Spread across more students, state funding only covers 92 cents for every dollar of student tuition. Yet the ACT and other measures of student aptitude still show only 25-30 percent of Kansas high school students are college-able. Capable Kansas university students are paying twice the tuition because far too many non-college-able students are attempting college in Kansas.
Therefore the Governor’s "tech ed" initiative—just about the only issue with some bipartisan agreement—comes at a critical time. Kansas needs auto mechanics, nursing assistants, and many other skilled workers and technicians. Kansas and Kansan students are poorly served by schools where hallway banners assert that every student will succeed by going to college. The state standardization movement of the last decade, not to mention the one-size-fits-all national common core currently being imposed, has pushed one single college-bound curriculum. The tech-ed initiative forces some policy-makers and educators to address the needs of both Kansas and Kansas students who desire another path.
Changes in college funding make this difficult. In the 1980s, state universities were funded at a set rate as long as their enrollment stayed within a narrow corridor. There was no financial benefit to bringing in a few more students; nor was there a penalty if enrollment dropped a few students.
But a prior chancellor of the University of Kansas convinced the Board of Regents to allow regent’s institutions to abandon that formula and let each school keep its tuition. That began today’s chase after every warm student body. Institutional growth has taken a front seat to educational quality. Pressure to retain and graduate more students threatens to lower standards and cheapen the value of a Kansas degree.
If more high school students have the option to go to technical school, and if Kansas universities are more selective, the result will be smaller Kansas universities, less tuition cost for our genuinely college-able students, and the preservation of academic rigor.
Brownback’s tech ed plan is not new. The Kansas State Board of Education has developed Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways for nearly a decade with the hope of motivating younger students to take schoolwork seriously. However one stark statistic warns against channeling students into career-paths too early. Nationwide nearly 60 percent of college students change their major at least once (one of several reasons the average college student takes five-and-a-half years to graduate).
Technical Schools across Kansas should be a winner under this new initiative. It is time that they got back to their special job of training technical skills. Recently some tech schools have hired outside faculty to teach academic general education courses. Some even advertise they can deliver a 3-credit academic course in a few weekends, making a farce of academic credit.
Nearly a decade ago, Kansas community colleges and technical schools were moved from under the authority of the Kansas State Board of Education to the Kansas Board of Regents for better coordination. Unfortunately the KBOR has failed to exert any substantial oversight of technical schools in Kansas.
This new promotion of "tech ed" should allow tech schools to return to their mission and faculty skills and leave academics to the community colleges and regents universities. If this does not occur, it may be time to transfer oversight back to the State Board of Education.