How should money from university tuition increases be used to provide the most benefit for Kansas students?
Enhance or maintain? That's the dilemma facing leader s at Kansas Board of Regents universities as they allocate income from tuition increases approved by the board last week.
The increases will raise tuition for Kansas residents attending Kansas University by 25.2 percent this fall. Full-time Kansas students will see their bills rise from $1,166 a semester to $1,460. Many are concerned about the effect the increase will have not only on their pocketbooks but on the ability of some less-fortunate students to stay in school at all.
About 20 percent of the revenue from the tuition increases will go to provide additional student financial aid. University officials contend this reallocation of tuition wealth will minimize the effect of higher tuition on needy students, but at least some students those in the academic and financial middle ground are likely to face tough decisions about whether to continue their education.
The most needy students will qualify for additional financial aid, as will the most academically talented students. But students who don't excel academically and whose family incomes keep them from qualifying for grants based solely on need will be caught in the middle. Among their unpleasant choices will be to work another job, take out additional loans that must be repaid after graduation or simply drop out.
Ironically, many of those students are the same students some Kansans fought to protect from qualified admissions standards that now have been enacted for Kansas high school graduates. Those standards were opposed by many people who believed all Kansas students, regardless of their academic records, should have the opportunity to enroll at a state university. Now, financial considerations, rather than academic achievement, may be the deciding factor.
University administrators will face some difficult decisions of their own. Members of the regents were adamant that the additional tuition money be spent on "enhancements" rather than to fill budget deficits. They were trying to make the statement that tuition money shouldn't be used to fund basic functions that are the responsibility of the state.
It's a sound principle, but it seems to lack practicality. Some university officials already have said that their plans for the tuition money have nothing to do with enhancements; they need that money to maintain current staff and services.
In approving the tuition increases, regents also said that the additional burden they are placing on Kansas families would pay off in improvements that would increase the value of a degree from a Kansas regents university. So where will that money go? To fund facility and technology enhancements? KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway already has informed his faculty and staff that there will be no money for salary increases in the fiscal year that begins Monday. It seems the best way to enhance the prestige and value of a degree from KU is to maintain a top-quality teaching and research staff.
Using tuition money to fund enhancements rather than basic needs may help state universities in their philosophical funding battle with the Kansas Legislature, but if it hurts students and the quality of education they receive, the entire state loses.
Officials have said many times that, even with the latest tuition increases, an education at a state university in Kansas will be an educational bargain. That probably is true, but the effects of increases that are proposed to double tuition at KU in the next several years nonetheless pose some troubling questions about whether the state will be able to maintain let alone, enhance the quality of and access to that educational opportunity.