Journal-World reporter Scott Rothschild asks Gov. Kathleen Sebelius about what's next for higher ed in Kansas.
Topeka During the next few months, state officials will be mapping out a plan to move higher education in Kansas past the landmark reforms known as Senate Bill 345.
"In higher education, there are some serious questions about not who is coming in the door as freshmen, but who is graduating and what are their skill sets when they graduate," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said recently.
Kansas Board of Regents Vice Chairwoman Christine Downey-Schmidt of Inman said the effort to focus on improvements to higher education is important because of its crucial link with economic development.
"If you look at what we will need as far as trained people, we have got to be able to fulfill those requirements of the community and the economy," Downey-Schmidt said.
For example, in recent years state officials have launched programs to address shortages in nurses and teachers.
"What we are trying to do is a better job of forecasting what we will need and prepare for it," she said.
Reggie Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the regents, said concern is rising nationally among the business community that while students graduate with complex skills, they sometimes lack the so-called "soft skills" of communication, teamwork and problem-solving.
"I think the regents are about to step into that conversation," Robinson said.
And, he said, the structural changes to higher education governance under SB 345, which was approved in 1999, put the state in a good position to tackle these issues.
"Senate Bill 345 provides the framework for moving forward," he said.
After years of unsuccessful reform attempts, SB 345 essentially placed all postsecondary education under one roof at the regents.
Looking back at the evolution of SB 345, Downey-Schmidt, who helped craft the bill when she was in the state Senate, said implementation of the legislation had its ups and downs, but overall it was a success.
Part of SB 345 was a multiyear plan to increase faculty salaries, but the reforms were beset by funding problems in 2001 as the state economy fell flat. Still, faculty salaries have increased, in part because of hefty tuition increases.
At Kansas University the average faculty salary is 99.3 percent of the average of Big 12 schools, and 93.2 percent of a group of 14 "peer" universities, according to school statistics.
Five years ago, the average faculty salary at KU was at 95.4 percent of the average of Big 12 schools and 89.4 percent of peer schools.
And Downey-Schmidt said SB 345 changed the higher education environment from one where schools competed to one where they cooperated under the guidance of the regents. In addition, the bill holds schools more accountable by requiring they hit goals to get new funding, she said.
"It was a great leap of faith," Downey-Schmidt said.
But she and Sebelius said it is time to reach the next level.
"We are turning our attention to both higher and early childhood education, saying those are the bookends that we've got to get right," Sebelius said.
The regents will conduct a retreat in August to discuss some of these issues. By that time, there will be several new members on the nine-member board, because three positions expired in June 2006 and three more this month.
And Sebelius said she has officials in her administration working on ways to match higher education programs with needs in the business community.