WATC merger to pose obstacles, benefits for both sides

Chance Swaim

Wichita State and Wichita Area Technical College are talking about the possibilities of a new merger.

Senate Bill 451, introduced earlier this month, would allow WATC to become the Wichita State School of Technology and Applied Science.

The merger would open new fields of study for technical college students and give WSU students access to more equipment and facilities, along with hands-on learning experiences.

“If this merger occurs, it’s a true merger,” said Wichita State President John Bardo. “Everything they own, we own, and they will have access to things here that they don’t currently have access to.”

Sheree Utash, president of WATC, said a merger could significantly increase the ability of both institutions to provide skilled employees for the Kansas workforce.

“Combining our assets would offer this region and state an even greater catalyst for economic growth,” Utash said. “We are enthused about the possibilities of creating an open-access college within the university that is dedicated to career and technical education and providing rapid responses to the evolving needs of industry.”

However, the merger won’t happen overnight. 

“The rest of this academic year and then probably up until March or April of next year, we will probably be in a study of all the various issues involved,” Bardo said.

Bardo said a commission of faculty members is assessing the possible issues in the merger, such as general education courses.

“I think we know the questions now — I don’t think we have the answers yet,” Bardo said. 

One of the major issues that will have to be addressed is general education courses, Bardo said. Currently, general education credits earned at WATC transfer to Wichita State, but cost significantly less in tuition and fees. In-state tuition for general education courses at WATC is $67 per credit hour plus $31 in student fees per credit hour.  This year, undergraduate in-state tuition at Wichita State is $202.70 per credit hour and $48.22 in student fees per credit hour.

Bardo said the university might consider listing the technical college general education courses differently. For example, instead of English 101, a student would take English 101T.

“Tuition would be less because the funding would come as part of the technical education funding,” Bardo said. “That’s going to be an area that’s going to have to be looked at very carefully.”

Bardo said it will be important to maintain WATC’s open admission standards for technical college students.

“We think that’s really important for them to be able to maintain that,” Bardo said. “But we don’t believe it’s appropriate to count open admission students against our retention rate, since it’s a different standard than every other regents’ institution uses. That will be an issue we’ll have to address, as well.”

Another hurdle, Bardo said, will be finding a way to integrate WATC’s faculty. 

“Once they become part of the university, if they have baccalaureate degrees, they’re going to have tenure-track faculty position,” Bardo said. “So instead of researching ‘Beowulf’ they may be researching how you make Marriott more cost-effective.”

Bardo said this merger will be an opportunity to be able to address concerns about benefits for non-tenure-track faculty in a systematic way. 

“We may use this as an opportunity to clean up some things we probably need to clean up ourselves regarding people with master’s degrees who teach here — to look at a new ranking system that we would then apply to everybody.”

Bardo said he knows the merger will face difficulties, but the rewards will be worth the trouble.

“It’s facilities, it’s programs, it’s meeting the needs of the people that are here—finding new ways of linking traditional fields to emerging fields,” Bardo said. “There’s a raft of opportunity here.”

Before anything is decided, the bill will have to pass at the state level and gain the approval of the Kansas Board of Regents and the Higher Learning Commission.

“I’m not trying to tell anybody what will be the answer,” Bardo said. “I’ve got some guesses on what might work, but that’s all they are right now. Nothing is set in stone.”