Time will tell whether the higher education bill approved by the Kansas Legislature this week will produce positive results.
"Reform of higher education will be what this Legislature is remembered for." -- House Speaker Robin Jennison.
That may or may not turn out to be a positive legacy for Kansas.
Thursday night, the Kansas Senate followed the Kansas House in approving a major overhaul in the governance system for higher education in Kansas. It will reconfigure the Kansas Board of Regents, bring Washburn University and the state's community colleges and vocational-technical schools under the supervision -- but not the control -- of the regents and spend $170 million over the next four years to try to make sure the plan works. After more than two decades of debate, the Legislature has done something about higher education governance. The question remains, however: Is this something going to be an improvement?
There are positive aspects to the bill. Rather than having their funding based purely on how many credit hours they teach, community colleges now will receive funding grants based on half the estimated cost of educating a freshman at one of the three smaller regents universities. That figure currently is $1,990 per-student and will be based on full-time equivalent enrollment at the community colleges. That doesn't entirely eliminate the incentive to boost FTE figures by teaching non-academic courses, but it may help the state get a handle on community college funding.
Perhaps the best news for state universities is a provision to upgrade funding for faculty salaries. To whatever extent the state's overall funding for community colleges rises as a result of the bill, the same amount will be spent on improving faculty salaries at state universities. That amount has been estimated at about $26 million over the next four years. That would be a welcome injection of funds into faculty salaries if it actually comes to pass.
County governments also can celebrate the end of out-district tuition, the amount counties had to pay for their residents to attend community colleges in other counties. The tuition payments were difficult to predict and hit particularly hard at Douglas County, where a large number of people -- including many Kansas University students -- drive to Johnson County Community College to take a few classes.
On the negative side of the ledger is a basic inequity in the power the new Board of Regents will have over state universities and what it will have over Washburn and community colleges. The new board will have the same powers it has over state universities now to approve programs and budgets and other duties. However, the new board would have only the powers that the State Board of Education currently has over community colleges. Those schools and Washburn will retain and be governed by local boards. This, as Sen. Sandy Praeger noted after her vote against the governance bill, "is not a level playing field" for community colleges and state universities.
Another troublesome issue is restrictions the bill puts on who the governor can appoint to the Board of Regents. No more than three members of the board can have undergraduate degrees from a single institution of higher education covered by the board, and no two graduates of a single institution can serve together on one of the three "commissions" into which the nine-member regents board will be split. As Praeger also said, this is "a bogus issue" that seems to be a specific slap at KU. Seven current regents have degrees from KU. The best possible people should be appointed as regents regardless of their university affiliations. It's hard to imagine that this artificial standard will do anything to improve the quality of the board.
The higher education bill is a done deal at this point, and Kansans will have to live with it. However, the bill also charges the Legislative Education Planning Committee with making an annual report to the governor on the implementation of the bill. That report would include recommendations and proposed legislation to improve the law.
This suggests that the bill is not set in stone in years to come. That's good in that there is room for the plan to evolve and improve. It's bad in that it leaves an opportunity for items such as the proposed funding for faculty salaries to be canceled by future Legislatures. Memories of the regents' Margin of Excellence, the three-year plan to raise salaries at state universities which was terminated before it was fully funded, should cause all people interested in faculty salaries to be leery of nice-sounding promises.
All of higher education in Kansas has more or less been brought under a single umbrella. Now the state will see whether that structure can survive the storms it is sure to race.