Archive for Sunday, September 17, 2006

Crumbling colleges

Maintenance deferred by politics

September 17, 2006


This is the second story in the Journal-World's series Kansas Crossroads exploring critical issues elected leaders will face in the next four years.

Topeka - In 1999, most Kansas lawmakers couldn't vote fast enough to increase taxes and sink the state in debt to fund a $13 billion, 10-year highway plan.

Sure, there were political skirmishes along the way, but the plan to raise taxes and borrow $1 billion was approved by wide margins with minor prodding by the highway industry.

Now, Kansas' six public universities report they are buried under a list of needed repairs that will cost an estimated $600 million to fix. That is less than one-twentieth the size of the highway tab. Kansas University is No. 1 on the repair list with more than $200 million worth of needed fixes.

But unlike the highway program, no one is rushing to fix higher ed's problem. The issue has been before the Legislature nearly for three years, and no action has been taken.

Meanwhile, the needed repair jobs keep increasing. The Kansas Board of Regents proposed a tax increase, but the Legislature immediately slammed the door shut on that.

In January, when the Legislature returns to session, the still simmering issue of "deferred maintenance" will confront legislators and the governor - whether it's Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, as a returned Democratic incumbent, or state Sen. Jim Barnett, her Republican challenger.

No new taxes

Reggie Robinson, chief executive officer of the regents, said advancing the issue is a challenge in the current no-new-taxes political atmosphere.

"That's the big obstacle. In an environment where people say tax increases of any kind are off the table, how do you maintain what you are doing and find the resources necessary to address major problems that emerge like deferred maintenance?," Robinson asked.

The problem is symptomatic of larger trends, according to national experts.

State appropriations to universities are on the decline as a percentage of total university budgets, and tuitions are skyrocketing much beyond the rate of inflation, leaving many students unable to attend college, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Societal changes

The funding shift represents a societal shift in attitude towards higher education, some say.

"Policymakers, because of budget restrictions, have begun to look at higher education as more of an individual benefit than a benefit to society at large," said Ross Hodel, co-director of the Center for the Study of Education Policy, based at Illinois State University.


Jim Modig, Kansas University director of design and construction management, discusses maintenance needs at KU. Enlarge video

Hodel said legislators have told him it doesn't bother them to ask people to pay higher tuition for four years instead of higher taxes to keep college affordable. The attitude is prevalent among Republicans and Democrats, Hodel said.

"There is a philosophy that saving taxpayers money is the top priority, rather than providing services," he said.

Illinois universities are facing a similar deferred maintenance problem, and the state's flagship school, Illinois University, has started charging student fees to pay for the repairs, he said.

Shrinking partner

Higher education costs at Kansas' six regents universities follow the national trend.

About the series

The Kansas Crossroads series attempts to get past the hot-button issues and focus on important matters that will require tough decisions to move the state forward. The Journal-World will present these issues to readers and call on the major party gubernatorial candidates - Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, and state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Republican - to address them before the Nov. 7 election. Last week, the Crossroads covered funding problems in the public employee retirement system. This week we look at challenges to higher education. These and other issues will affect tax rates, personal income and the quality of life in Kansas for generations.

From the 2003-04 academic year to the current academic year, the average tuition and fees paid by a resident undergraduate for a 15-hour course load has increased from $1,442 per semester to $2,251. The increase at KU has gone from $1,742 to $3,076.

Meanwhile, the percentage of support from the state toward the six regents universities' budget has decreased from 49 percent of the schools' budgets in 1985 to 29 percent last year. For KU, the amount of state assistance decreased from 48 percent of its total budget to 25 percent during the same period.

But state Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, and chairman of the House budget committee, said lawmakers are not to blame for this state of affairs.

Universities in recent years have asked for more autonomy from the Legislature.

"The universities have made it clear to the Legislature that they want to be independent so that the Legislature has less say," Neufeld said.

And, he said, changes in the workplace have in many instances placed less emphasis on a college education.

"The economy does not have a demand that everyone have a fine arts degree. Employers care if someone has the specialized training to do the job," he said.

Private donors

To replace the public money, universities try to tap private donations, perhaps even for maintenance.

At a committee meeting in the last legislative session, Robinson was asked by a lawmaker if universities, when being given a donation to construct a building, could ask the donor to also provide money to maintain those buildings.

"There is a sense that for the universities in particular, that legislators seem to think private donors ought to play a bigger role," Robinson said.

"Part of what is missed in that is not every public institution has access to private resources in the same way. It's one thing for KU or K-State, which has a lot of donors who are heavy hitters, but is that same scale there for Emporia State and Pittsburg State? So the decline in public support hurts all, but it hurts some pretty significantly," he said.

The solution

On the issue of deferred maintenance, Robinson and higher education officials will continue to meet with legislators to try to devise a plan to address the repairs. Their major argument is that the longer a solution is put off, the more expensive the remedy becomes.

Reader poll
How should Kansas public universities find money to pay for crumbling classrooms on their campsuses?

or See the results without voting


Robinson said the state's 19 junior colleges and Washburn University currently are checking to see what repairs they need and how much that will cost. That estimate plus revised numbers from the regents institutions should be compiled by November.

Robinson said he believes the issue of deferred maintenance will get more traction when the Legislature meets in January, if the community colleges are included.

"That increases the prospects of support when you broaden the group of participants who are going to benefit from the resource package," he said.

But Neufeld, the House budget chair, said there will be no big-time solution to the problem of deferred maintenance.

Because of the recent fight over public school finance, the first priority of state spending will go to kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.

He said the Legislature will not pass a tax increase, nor does he think a majority of lawmakers are inclined to issue bonds for repairs.

"Nothing is easy," he said.

What's next

The state's junior colleges are supposed to report soon on their deferred maintenance costs. The Legislative Budget Committee is scheduled this fall to review deferred maintenance needs, "especially for needed life safety improvement," and make a recommendation to the 2007 Legislature on a long-term funding plan to address the problem. Kansas Board of Regents President Reggie Robinson will answer questions during an Internet chat at 3 p.m. Monday at


Richard Heckler 11 years, 6 months ago

It appears that the neocons Club for Growth has affected our legislators with their no new tax policy which seems to be guiding the Kansas Chamber of Commerce as well.

Maintaining educational institutions provide one of the best bangs for the tax buck whereas building super highways create a place for auto pollution to be generated and many times are nothing more than pork barrel projects.

A pork barrel project that would meet my bias locally could be called Douglas County Vocational-Technical Institute. Think about it. Instead of raising taxes to follow through with an obsolete road plan why not create an educational insitution that would pay for itself? How would it pay for itself? By providing opportunity and skills that might translate into entrepreneurs thus productive citizens.

Stephen Prue 11 years, 6 months ago

Hindsight is always 20 15 for most administrators but none2 is right why didn't ku see a need to change to more telecommuter, non-traditional student offerings.

GardenMomma 11 years, 6 months ago

Suppose they pay their athletic coaches a salary comparable to a Doctorate in Business or English or Physics instead of the millions they now pay them? That might free up some cash for upkeeping the college.

roger_o_thornhill 11 years, 6 months ago

Here's a post that will cause a landslide of comments to the effect of: The athletic dept. generates revenue beyond costs of salaries of coaches, players, etc... blah...blah...blah. More diversions from anything of actual importance.

For the most part, post-secondary education is still only for a certain segment of society (and I'm not talking about smart people).

Do they still call kids "legacy" if their parents attended the same school?

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 6 months ago

Neufeld said: ""The economy does not have a demand that everyone have a fine arts degree. Employers care if someone has the specialized training to do the job," he said."

This attitude is the problem. Neufeld and likely other legislators see education as job training only.

The economy might not demand an educated populace, but democracy does.

In our crumbling universities we see the beginnings of a crumbling democracy.

KS 11 years, 6 months ago

Nuefeld is right on that one. Not all jobs require a college education. Not all jobs require a high school education. It depends on what you want in life. I don't think KU teaches welding, but when a professor there wants a new railing on their stairway, I guess they can always call the business school.

ASBESTOS 11 years, 6 months ago

Kansas has been run as a "not-for profit" for years. It appears as if we are finally reaching critical mass.

guesswho 11 years, 6 months ago

Great states have great universities. Back in the 60s or so, California invested amazing amounts of money in the public universities, and great things happened. (yes, this is simplifying things a bit - but bear with me). Texas is now doing the same thing, investing in its universities tremendously. This isn't just about KU's ivory tower reputation, or offering more classes for non-traditional students. This should be for all forms of education; preschool, K-12, and higher, whether it is KU or K-State or Fort Hayes State. Universities help promote critical thinking, which isn't required for most jobs but is required for a sucessful democracy.

Athletics is separate - yes, coaches get paid (but there is a huge difference between what an English prof and a physics or business prof gets).

I think legacy mainly refers to when children are in the same sorority or fraternity as their parents, but I'm not sure. It also may have a different connotation for private schools (Yale, etc).

yourworstnightmare 11 years, 6 months ago

One more failure of the do-nothing Kansas legislature.

MyName 11 years, 6 months ago

Suppose they pay their athletic coaches a salary comparable to a Doctorate in Business or English or Physics instead of the millions they now pay them? That might free up some cash for upkeeping the college.

1) The state only pays for maybe 1/4 of the coaches salaries, most of it comes directly from the athletic corp. which is not part of the State budget, or the university budget.

2) Even if the State did pay for the whole salary, that's still less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the cost of maintenance.

KU can rot to the ground for all I care. From my limited perspective of looking from the outside only...tuition is outrageous and STILL the place is falling apart?

KU has been raising tuition to the "outrageous" level to make up for the money that the State is no longer contributing. The reason why things are getting so bad for the state universities is because they've been forced to do more with less. It's the same thing that would happen if you get a pay cut and can't afford to fix everything in your house. You prioritize and defer until you can't defer anymore.

And if you're so sure that it's just mismanagement that's the problem, why don't you look at the university budget and tell the rest of the class where $300 million is disappearing to.

Godot 11 years, 6 months ago

"The state only pays for maybe 1/4 of the coaches salaries, most of it comes directly from the athletic corp. which is not part of the State budget, or the university budget."

Considering the HUGE disparity between the salaries of the KUAC and other KU staff and faculty, why does the state contribute ANYTHING to the budget of KUAC? In fact, I thought the athletic department was supposed to be a boon to a University, not a drain on the budget. What dolllar amount does the KU Athletic Corp return to the KU budget each year?

KS 11 years, 6 months ago

I really have no pity on the big schools like KU. The alumni have been very generous. With fund raising like KU First, there should be plenty of money. Why should the taxpayer be hit with deferred maintenence?

Tychoman 11 years, 6 months ago

Because it's the taxpayer's university. Emphasis on STATE university. The alumni may be generous, but they have a very strong say in whether their money goes into fixing walls or creating swanky new alumni-aimed centers.

Danimal 11 years, 6 months ago

Tychoman makes a valid argument. Most alumni that give significant sums pledge funds towards worthless projects like "gateways" to the University. Further, as a former Endowment employee I can say that while KUs endowment is doing alright it cannot compare with the endowments of most other large universities across the nation. Because the Endowment pays about 1/3 of KUs annual budget due to declining state funding that leaves less money to reinvest into the actual endowed accounts. Alumni donations are immediately consumed. And just so you know, the state laws prevent the University from having property insurance except on a few select peices of equipment. So the millions of dollars of damage done to campus by the microburst will have to come from somewhere else...

drewdun 11 years, 6 months ago

"So much for progressive liberal thinking. Seems yet again it only works in theory.

Naturally, blame it on Republicans."

What does that even mean? What only works 'in theory?' Universities?

Jersey_Girl 11 years, 6 months ago

Thank you, drewdun.

Vince2909 - if KU rots to the ground, dollars to doughnuts you'll be out of a job. I don't know what you do for a living and it really doesn't matter. KU is Lawrence. Without KU and its faculty, staff and students, Lawrence would be just another podunk Kansas town. Sure, people who work in KC and Topeka might still live here and commute to work, but a lot of those same people got their start and education at KU and chose to continue living here while commuting to where ever they work. Whatever you do for a living in Lawrence, directly or indirectly, you provide services for the people who work and learn at KU.

As for alumni donating money to KU, they generally want to see their names mentioned on whatever their money went to and I don't think that includes personalized shingles on Hoch Auditorium.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.