HAYS — Sitting amid wheat and milo fields in western Kansas, the challenge for Fort Hays State is recruiting rural high school graduates to enroll, according to FHSU president Tisa Mason.

“We are really working hard to get students here but it’s not easy to grow the on-campus population," Mason said Tuesday morning at an informal gathering of Hays and Ellis County commissioners.

“It used to be several years ago it was said the population that is not going to college are students of color,” Mason said. “Well, now the biggest population not going to college are rural students.”

Even so, unlike other universities around the state, Fort Hays, with more than 15,900 students, has grown aggressively, particularly in online learning enrollment. About 8,000 of the university’s students are in Kansas, she said.

“We’re the only institution that’s been growing enrollment in Kansas,” Mason explained during the breakfast at the FHSU President’s Home. “Over half of our enrollment is in Kansas.”

The university’s estimated 2018 economic impact on Ellis County and four surrounding counties ranged from $233.7 million to $175.3 million, according to a new economic impact study. The study by FHSU finance and economics faculty used two different comprehensive and accepted methodologies.

It’s difficult to measure the full impact, said Emily Breit, associate professor of finance, one of the researchers on the study.

“We have a significant number of our students, after they go to Fort Hays State they stay in the community, they create more jobs in the community, and those kinds of impacts get very, very difficult to measure,” Breit said. “So there’s a lot of leakage that isn’t included in this study, and the impact is far greater than we can actually measure. These are probably very, very conservative estimates.”

FHSU employs 956 faculty and staff. There are 4,500 students on campus for the 2019-2020 school year, Mason said.

“Has campus hit capacity?” asked City Commissioner Michael Berges.

“We still have space to grow on campus; I’d like to see us more around 5,000, 6,000,” Mason said. “That’s kind of the sweet spot. We could probably handle 7,500.”

FHSU is doing a lot of outreach to Garden City and Dodge City, she said, busing in potential students to see the campus and helping first-generation students fill out required forms.

It’s easier to grow distance education, she said, with FHSU serving every county in Kansas, every state in America, every branch of the military and every continent except Antarctica.

Fort Hays started its distance learning program years ago and is ahead of the curve, but other institutions have now jumped in and are catching on.

“That’s even getting to be more competitive and challenging,” Mason said.