Failing to invest in higher education could be exactly the wrong course to take during tight economic times.
The budget revisions proposed by Gov. Bill Graves in his State of the State address may have been a step in the right direction for the schools overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents, but that doesn't mean Kansas University officials aren't still concerned.
Graves said Monday that his proposed tax increases would restore cuts made to university budgets in the current fiscal year and add $7 million to the regents' budget to distribute as they see fit. However, even if the entire $7 million was dedicated to salaries, the regents wouldn't be able to match the 2 percent raises the governor is proposing for other state employees.
On top of that, KU Chancellor Hemenway contends that the $27 million isn't really enough to get state universities back to where they started this year because of increased health insurance costs and continuation of a mid-year salary increase.
This adds up to a fairly bleak financial picture for state universities and has prompted the regents to explore other avenues for funding. Plans to issue $115 million in bonds to build research facilities at the three largest state universities drew a favorable response from legislators who attended a session in Manhattan Thursday. It's a good proposal that takes advantage of current low interest rates, but the bonds alone won't solve all the university funding problems.
At a meeting this week, Graves said he feared legislators might use the research bonds to "buy off" universities. It's possible, he said, that lawmakers would approve the bond proposal then point to it as an excuse for not finding the revenue to even restore funding cuts, as Graves has proposed.
Graves also had reservations about the timing of the regents' discussions about university tuition. Although officials at KU and the other state universities are making a strong case to justify proposals that would as much as double tuition over the next five years, Graves said he'd rather they postponed those decisions until after the legislative session ends. Using tuition increases to produce more revenue for state universities also may take some of the pressure off the Legislature to adequately fund those schools, he said.
Many legislators might look at higher tuition as a way to reduce the state's obligation to fund higher education during the current economy downturn. Another way to look at the issue, however, might be that tight economic times are the worst possible time to raise tuition because higher tuition rates would make a university education unaffordable for even more students. Fiscally conservative lawmakers are quick to point out that tax increases shouldn't be considered when people are losing their jobs. Couldn't the same be said of university tuition increases?
Even in difficult economic times, the state can't afford to turn its back on state universities that produce research and employees that will drive the state's economy. Even small steps back from its commitment to higher education now will leave the state miles behind the competition in the years to come.
The research bond issue is a good idea that legislators should support. Tuition increases may well be a positive piece in the overall effort to provide better funding for state universities. But neither of those factors diminishes at all the Kansas Legislature's responsibility to take the steps needed to keep higher education in Kansas from falling behind.