The state's declining investment in higher education gives some legislators' efforts to micromanage state universities in the name of protecting taxpayer money a hollow ring.
It's a little irritating for those of us who value higher education to notice how state legislators selectively choose to claim fiscal responsibility for state universities.
It happened again this week when State Sen. Susan Wagle expressed her desire to keep alive the controversy she triggered earlier this year about a sexuality class at Kansas University. Wagle succeeded in pushing through a bill that will require state higher education leaders to write a policy on teaching sexually explicit topics, but she said this week that may not be the end of the issue for her and other legislators.
"I think the Legislature is very interested in following up," Wagle told a Journal-World reporter, "It is taxpayer money, so there are a lot of issues to be balanced there."
It's interesting how the "it is taxpayer money" card gets played when legislators want to exert control over universities. But when it comes to providing adequate state funding for higher education, more and more of the responsibility is being transferred to students and private donors.
A study released earlier this year by a Florida research firm compared the level of state funding for universities in the Big 12 Conference. It found that KU, with $5,988 per student, was next to the bottom of the list of per-pupil funding provided by the state. Only the University of Colorado received less.
Additionally, the level of state funding for higher education in Kansas had dropped from 16.3 percent of the state budget in 1990 to just 11.8 percent after last year's budget cuts.
In 1990, according to KU's budget office, the state's appropriation for KU paid 45.5 percent of the cost of operating the university. In 2002, it paid 29.4 percent of the operating cost.
At the same time, according to a report released Tuesday by the College Board, KU tuition and fees have increased 114 percent in the past 10 years, well above the national average of 85 percent for four-year public universities. Tuition at KU still is affordable, but the increase is notable.
The figures aren't something of which state legislators should be proud. The governor and the Legislature have been willing to help balance the budget for the last several years by shifting more and more responsibility for university funding to private sources and students paying tuition.
But when something is happening at one of the state's universities that draws the ire of even one legislator, suddenly the state needs to get involved in the name of protecting "taxpayer money."
Kansas taxpayers, of course, have a stake in their state universities and how they are operated. However, state legislators' concerns over how taxpayer money is used at state universities might be more credible if they were accompanied by a more adequate financial commitment to higher education in Kansas.