It's fairly obvious a recent feature story in USA Today about the rising costs of a college education, accompanied by a chart showing the percentage of tuition and fee increases at 75 flagship universities in 50 states has captured the attention of Kansas University officials - and the public.
The report showed only four universities with a higher percentage increase in tuition for in-state students from the 2002-03 school year to the present than the increase at KU. Only three universities had higher increases for the 2005-06 school year to the current year. The increases for out-of-state students have not been as severe.
There has been considerable discussion and reaction to the USA Today story, with some at KU expressing displeasure at the manner in which this story has been reported or interpreted.
This writer noted the major increases in tuition at KU and other Kansas Board of Regents universities and suggested there will come a time when students and parents will say "enough is enough, we can't afford the continued tuition and fee increases at KU if the current trend continues."
Unfortunately, the attitude of some at KU seems to be, "You (students and parents) should be appreciative of how we have kept our tuition so low. You are getting a first-rate education at a bargain price. You shouldn't complain."
Much of this may be true, but it is arrogant and politically dumb for KU officials to suggest students and parents, or the media, don't know or understand the facts.
The fact is tuition costs have risen significantly at KU over the past five years. And no matter how these figures are justified, it still is costing students and their parents more dollars to go to KU. In many areas of the state, the economy is poor, and parents already are stretched financially to meet family needs. There comes a time when they cannot afford to pay more for their children's college education if they want to attend KU, Kansas State or any state university. Costs are going up at every school.
It should be noted that members of the Board of Regents should be concerned about this matter and far more involved in the costs to attend the universities under their supervision. Regents have many responsibilities, and an increasing number of individuals interested in the state's higher education program are questioning just how much attention they give to the fiscal management of the universities and the annual requests for higher tuition.
In addition to the constant drumbeat of KU being a bargain and its tuition being in the middle among its peer institutions, the other justification for the significant increases seems to be a newly released figure quoted by the new KU provost, Richard Lariviere, reporting that 56 percent of KU seniors had no student loan debt when they graduated.
In other words, KU's tuition must not be that crippling for KU students and the school probably could continue to raise tuition and fees without significantly damaging the pocketbook of a high percentage of students.
This is dangerous thinking. Just this week, the KU student newspaper carried a front page headline saying "Rising tuition, living costs compel students to spend more time at work." Concern about tuition increases at KU is not new, nor is it limited to Kansas universities. It is a matter of concern throughout the country.
In the USA Today list of 75 universities, KU ranked 32nd for tuition costs for the current year. Among the Big 12 schools listed, the University of Texas, University of Missouri and Texas A&M have higher tuition and fees, with Iowa State, Nebraska, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oklahoma State charging lower rates. Baylor and Texas Tech were not listed.
Dollar-wise, KU is about in the middle, but regardless of where KU may be, either in actual dollars or in the percentage of increase, parents and students have been hit with a 76.6 percent increase in tuition and fees since 2002-03. Whether in dollars or percentages, the KU price tag has risen considerably and it is going to cost more in the years to come.
Parents and students alike are going to have to figure out how to come up with the dollars to pay the increased costs, even though it is "a bargain," "in the mid-range of KU's peer institutions" and about in the middle of the USA Today listings.
Excellence costs; there's no way around it. If KU is to have any hope of reaching Chancellor Robert Hemenway's challenging, but questionable, goal of being in the top 25 of the nation's state-aided universities and eventually in the top 25 of all U.S. universities, there will have to be significant increases in tuition. History shows the state is unlikely to come up with higher percentages of operating budgets, and it is questionable how much more private donors can be expected to contribute. It will cost many millions of additional dollars to attract, expand and retain a truly outstanding faculty.
Outstanding faculty and superior students, along with excellent facilities, is the combination needed to climb into the top 25 of either state-aided or all U.S. universities.
Can, or will, students and parents be able to pay another 76.6 percent over the next four years to go into KU's drive for excellence, or are there sufficient fiscal resources elsewhere to elevate KU to a higher level of academic excellence? Will the state allow KU to implement higher academic qualification for those wishing to enroll at KU?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, the attitude of KU officials should be a bit more sympathetic to the current fiscal burden on students and parents.
Hopefully, the USA Today report and subsequent comments by observers has and will cause university administrators, as well as the regents and state legislators, to take a more careful look at the cost of a college education in Kansas.