The Kansas Board of Regents' top executive said Thursday the state could benefit from exploration of opportunities for providing a university education to residents of southwest Kansas.

Blake Flanders, the higher education board's president and CEO, said placement of five of the six public state universities in the eastern half of Kansas left the western portion of the state, excluding Fort Hays State University, to be served by public community and technical colleges.

"There is a pocket in southwest Kansas that has lower attainment," he told a House higher education committee. "That's where we see real opportunities."

Flanders said less than 30 percent of the population in a dozen southwest Kansas counties had earned a college degree or technical education certificate after high school. Only one county in Kansas — Johnson County — has surpassed the 60 percent target set by the Board of Regents.

Statewide, the state's public and independent colleges and universities awarded 40,800 undergraduate certificates and degrees in 2018. The goal last year for Kansas was 48,700 degrees and certificates, he said.

He said the state's objective moving forward ought to be an increase in higher education attainment in fields aligning with needs of the economy. He said 78 percent of jobs lost in the last recession were held by people without post-secondary education experience.

The Board of Regents has governance authority over state universities in Manhattan, Lawrence, Pittsburg, Hays, Emporia and Wichita. The board has coordinating responsibilities for Washburn University in Topeka, as well as 19 community colleges and six technical colleges.