DODGE CITY — Check out Dodge City.
A new $12 million waterpark. A shiny new craft brewery — not far from the new whiskey distillery. And, yes, that trendy new downtown cafe.
A nearly $6 million addition to Boot Hill Museum just kicked off last fall. That’s about when Dodge City wrapped up $86 million in renovations and expansions to its schools.
Much of rural Kansas is withering. Not Dodge City. It offers a growing anchor in the state’s southwest, grounded in the meat industry and energized by the thousands of people who work at its slaughterhouses.
But the town’s success story risks hitting a 21st century ceiling. It lacks a four-year college.
That complicates upward mobility for blue-collar workers, costs the town services it sorely needs and hinders efforts to diversify the local economy.
Some residents leave the region to chase the schooling that leads to higher-paying jobs. Others can’t afford to. Meanwhile, plenty of middle-class jobs in the region go unfilled, such as teaching positions and better-paying health care work.
That’s why community leaders dream of bringing four-year college to this icon of the Old West.
“It’s the only way,” said Joann Knight, head of economic development, “to really address our health care issues and the lack of education out here.”
Dodge City has become west Kansas’ biggest city, at the heart of a 28-county region that lacks any state university.
Give southwest Kansas a satellite campus, they propose, where universities based elsewhere offer bachelor’s degrees that build on the region’s community college programs. Make four-year degrees a realistic option for more students. Keep down costs of the project by reviving classrooms at a local Catholic college that closed decades ago.
“If we drop the ball,” Knight said, “I’d hate to see what our health care access is going to be in 10 years.”
A health care desert
The average Kansas county has one primary care doctor per 1,330 residents. In this corner of the state, those physicians are almost twice as rare.
In many southwest counties, you can’t get a tooth filled or help for a child’s anxiety attacks. There’s no dentist or mental health provider in sight.
Even in bustling Dodge City, residents express frustration with difficulty making appointments and with turnover.
“I've gone to the doctor quite a few times,” Dodge City High senior Jacquelyn Martinez said, “And I swear, like every time I go, it’s always a different person.”
Martinez wants to be a physician’s assistant — just one of the many kinds of health workers that nurse practitioner Jacque Kemmerer says the region urgently needs.
Patients requiring more specialized care have it the worst, says the founder of a women’s health clinic in Dodge City that’s now part of Pratt Regional Medical Center. Thyroid problems? Seizures? Diabetes? All those can mean long car trips.
“If the diabetes becomes uncontrolled,” she said, “they have to go two-and-a-half hours to Wichita to see an endocrinologist.”
A Wichita State University report prepared for Dodge City scrutinized health outcomes in southwest Kansas and surveyed hundreds of health experts and community leaders.
People die younger in southwest Kansas than the rest of the state and nationwide, researchers found. They’re hospitalized more often with conditions like diabetes and asthma that regular primary care can help keep in check.
The survey’s respondents said population decline across west Kansas has worsened the care shortage — but so has the surging cost of college and the absence of a close-to-home campus.
In the region’s three biggest counties, where Dodge City, Liberal and Garden City lie, around 10 percent of adults work in health care. Elsewhere in Kansas 14 percent do.
An education desert, too
Dodge City High School senior Leslie Rodela doesn’t know yet whether she should aim to become a nurse practitioner or a family physician, but she knows either path will take her away from here for several years at least.
“I like this town,” she said. “I'm kind of sad that I would have to move away.”
Southwest Kansas parents with college-bound kids pack them off and hope some, at least, will bring those coveted bachelor’s and graduate degrees back — as Rodela hopes to do.
“Unfortunately,” said Bud Estes, a state senator from Dodge City, “much of the time they do not.”
Three of his four children didn’t return. Estes the parent doesn’t begrudge anyone that. Estes the senator needs a solution to fill his district’s demand for degrees.
Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison puts Dodge City squarely in a sprawling higher education “desert.”
Nationally, most freshmen enroll in college within 50 miles of home. People who live farther away are less likely to go. Dodge City sits 105 miles from Fort Hays State, the closest state university. Wichita State lies 160 miles away.
Kansas has seven public universities. None of them has a campus in the state’s 28 southwestern counties — Kansas’ only quadrant without that. Barclay College, a Christian school of about 250 students and the region’s only four-year campus, lies 60 miles east of Dodge City in tiny Haviland.
Neither that nor the community colleges in Dodge City, Liberal or Garden City provide the broad access to four-year degrees that University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Nick Hillman says open a critical level of economic opportunity.
“That’s where the big jumps are going to happen,” he said, “with that four-year credential.”
On average, Kansas adults add about $4,500 to their annual earnings if they study beyond high school and get a year or two of college under their belts. A four-year degree is a nearly $20,000 jump.
Many educators hope the age of online learning can fill the void. But Hillman says studies suggest distance learning isn’t producing widespread success. For viable, broader access, he thinks states need to find other ways to fit into the lives of the students they hope to serve.
That could mean testing a mix of in-person and web-based instruction, or rethinking the mission of community colleges to help students earn four-year degrees.
Otherwise, many people eyeing bachelor’s degrees will continue either to leave the area or simply miss out. Comparatively few will go wholly online.
Xiomara Garcia enrolled in Dodge City Community College to earn an associate’s degree in nursing. Ultimately, she wants bachelor’s and graduate degrees, and to become a nurse practitioner.
She has doubts about online options for those higher credentials.
“When you’re together with your professor, they teach you more,” she said. “Their doors are open. You're more than welcome to ask questions after class.”
So Garcia has thought about moving instead, but she says if state universities offered a satellite campus in her region, that option would suit her well.
“This is where I’m from,” she said. “I have my family here, all the resources I need are here. The only thing missing is the actual education.”
Some states eager to expand access let community colleges offer bachelor’s programs. Others have created collaborative, multi-college satellite campuses — sometimes called “university centers.”
Educators and civic leaders in Dodge City, Liberal and Garden City want a university center — a partnership among local community colleges and state universities that could start with a focus on health care and expand from there.
Only in Garden City do students go on to college at rates akin to the rest of Kansas, tallies from the state education department indicate. Fewer than one-third of teens in Liberal and Dodge City graduate and continue to college within a few years.
“There’s the financial barrier,” said Annie Martinez, who teaches anatomy and other sciences at Dodge City High School. “But also, just — we have a lot of kids who are very connected with their families.”
A university center could let her students earn an associate’s degree in nursing at Dodge City Community College, for example, and top it off with a bachelor’s without leaving town.
Professor Mechele Hailey directs the community college’s nursing program and encourages all her graduates to keep studying.
Hospitals, clinics and nursing homes crave those higher degrees. Research shows links to healthier patients, and graduate-level nursing degrees can help doctor’s offices serve more people.
“The more education we can get,” Hailey said, “the better nursing is in general.”
Students say a university center could let them live at home during their studies, sparing them thousands of dollars in dorm fees on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree.
“I would have my family to help me throughout the entire process,” said Alexandra Garcia, a Dodge City high school senior who wants a bachelor’s and, eventually, a physician’s assistant master’s degree from Wichita State. “That would help a lot.”
Over the past decade, the Kansas Regents set urgent annual targets to get thousands more students earning two or four-year degrees.
Without those degrees, they worry, businesses will struggle to hire and grow. Kansans will struggle to reach or stay in the middle class.
But the state hasn’t come close to hitting its goal. Doing so would require enrolling many more of the students who often face greater hurdles to higher education. Black and Hispanic students, and those from low-income families or families with no college history, remain less likely to study beyond high school.
Thousands of students from those groups live in Dodge City, Liberal and Garden City.
Their schools bring together a mix of stunningly diverse heritages — the product of the region’s many agricultural jobs. Dozens of languages from around the world are spoken in southwest Kansas homes, ranging from Spanish and Congolese French to Guatemalan K’iche’, Somali and Burmese.
Think of the social and economic implications of failing to open doors to college, says Terri Mujica-McLain. She’s a Kansas City consultant who hails from southwest Kansas and is helping with the push for a university center.
“If you’re not educating your minority population,” she said, “you’ve totally missed the bus.”
Think big, start small?
Yet Southwest Kansas faces a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.
Calculating the costs of a satellite campus depends on how many students would enroll. Pinning down demand is difficult for programs that don’t yet exist.
But Dodge City leaders pursue the concept doggedly, with help from federal and foundation grants, and are gaining momentum. At least three universities have visited to gauge the prospects. Fort Hays State will soon finish a feasibility study on rolling out a few bachelor's programs as early as next fall.
“It needs to be a win-win for the institution, for the local community and obviously for the student,” said Shane Bangerter, a Dodge Citian and vice chair of the Kansas Board of Regents. “What I would like to see happen is to get some of these programs started and then we can better judge.”
Wichita State economists think west Kansas will keep losing residents in the coming decades. But they predict two of the west’s four main population centers will continue to grow: Hays (which already has a university) and Dodge City.
At around 35,000 people today, Dodge and surrounding Ford County may reach nearly 50,000 by the mid-2060s.
Liberal and Seward County, researchers predict, will hold steady. Garden City and Finney County could shrink as much as a third.
Dodge City officials suggest a satellite campus there could serve Liberal and Garden City, too, with courses potentially offered at all three locations.
The project could keep costs down by teaming up with the community colleges in all three towns — and using the ample space at Hennessy Hall.
A hulking yet elegant structure built in the 1950s, Hennessy once housed St. Mary of the Plains College. Today, Dodge City puts it to a wide range of uses. A Catholic college in Wichita — Newman University — already offers a small program for aspiring teachers there. Dodge City officials see that as one piece already in place for its satellite campus vision.
St. Mary closed in 1992. A press release from that year pins blame for the Catholic college’s demise largely on a “disastrous” deal-gone-awry with an out-of-state trucking school that sunk it into deep trouble with the U.S. Department of Education.
Until then, 160 faculty and staff served more than 800 students a year, churning out young professionals.
Business, education and nursing ranked among the most popular majors, says Tim Wenzl, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City. Many of the graduates stayed.
R.C. Trotter co-owns a five-physician family medical practice in Dodge City with mental health counseling and a nurse practitioner.
“Everyone in my office grew up out here,” he said.
“Come to the product,” he urged Kansas universities. “Come to where the kids are if you really want to make a difference in education down the road.”
This is Part Eight in our series on college and careers. Here are the rest: Part One on the advent of the "college economy," Part Two on planning life after high school, Part Three on Kansas' tech college boom, Part Four on free dual credit classes for high schoolers, Part Five on state investment in engineering education, Part Six on college major tips, Part Seven on "degree inflation" and Part Nine on transferring from community college to university.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association reporting fellowship program.