Settlers first began homesteading Kansas in 1854, just as tensions over slavery were reaching a crescendo. As a result, the territory became a key battleground with Northern abolitionists and Southern pro-slavery settlers rushing to populate the future state. In the midst of this heated confrontation began the state’s postsecondary educational tradition. The earliest years saw the emergence of a number of small, private, mostly church-affiliated institutions.
In 1858, Baker University became the state’s first four-year institution. The Methodist-chartered institution remains the oldest continuously operated four-year school in the state. That same year saw the opening of Highland College. Known today as Highland Community Junior College, it too is the oldest continuously operated school of its kind.
Back to the fractured history of early Kansas. The abolitionists ultimately won a antebellum victory, with Kansas becoming a non-slave state upon its admission to the Union in 1861. After five years of war, Kansas emerged to the establishment of its first public university. In 1866, the University of Kansas opened its doors in the small town of Lawrence. Today, the nearly 29,000 students who make their home on its 1100 acre campus enjoy an exceptionally reasonable tuition—$6,600 for in-state and $16,000 for out-of-state enrollees—and one of the most exciting sporting traditions in the NCAA.
In particular, the Jayhawks of men’s basketball are part of as storied a tradition as exists in college sport. Ranking #2 in an ESPN poll of greatest modern college basketball programs, it currently enjoys the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at 26. It’s no wonder basketball is such a fundamental part of student life at the University of Kansas. The game’s inventor, James Naismith, was actually the program’s founder and the team’s first coach!
Indeed, basketball is a central part of student life throughout Kansas, with public universities like Wichita State and Kanas State also fielding competitive teams year-in, year-out. In fact, the latter, in 2012-2013, became only the second school in the history of the Big 12 Conference to win conference titles in men’s basketball, football, and baseball in a single year. As for the former, Wichita State’s Shockers probably hold the unofficial title for funniest NCAA mascot.
Enrollment at Kansas State and Wichita State are approximately 23,000 and 14,000 respectively. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, many of the state’s best schools are rooted in traditions of faith. Benedictine University, for example, is a devoutly Roman Catholic campus of roughly 1700 students. Though the school was established in Atchison in 1971, it was actually the product of two far older institutions. The merger of St. Benedict’s College for men (nee 1850) and the Mount St. Scholastica College for Women (nee 1923), helped produce a close-knit, spiritual community that, in addition to its student population, is home to 53 monks and 15 varsity NCAA athletics programs.
With 33 public institutions, 25 non-profit private schools, and an average in-state public school tuition roughly $1100 below the national average of $8,070, the educational landscape in Kansas is actually quite a bit more varied than the topography of the state itself.