I believe that tuition at the Kansas Board off Regents universities is too high and that the annual increases students and their families are being asked to bear are insupportable in the current economy. At a time when the very basics of life are becoming harder to afford for Kansas families, every dollar increase in university tuition puts an unacceptable burden on those who want to better themselves through education.
Having said this, however, I do not believe that the majority of blame for our frequent and often high tuition increases lies primarily with the universities. Instead, it lies with the Kansas Legislature, with the politicization of higher education in Kansas, and with the public's increasing expectations of what a university can provide for its students and the state as a whole.
It is far too easy for politicians and the general public who do not spend much time at the universities or study closely the universities' budgets and expenditure totals to blame rising tuition on there being too much "fat" at the schools. I have been at KU for 14 years. I have seen very little waste and no "fat" to speak of.
Indeed, what I see is a large number of faculty and staff whose salaries are significantly below market, buildings that are in an advanced state of disrepair for lack of funds to maintain them, library and technology budgets far too small to provide cutting edge technology for research and teaching. Indeed, what I see, generally, is students, faculty and staff making the best of perpetually inadequate resources.
A decade ago the Kansas Legislature seems to have decided that it simply did not want to continue to fund adequately the needs of the regents universities. Instead of accepting the difficult task of taking the political heat for maintaining the quality of our state university system, the Legislature decided to shift the burden of maintaining adequate funding to the universities. In this way they were able to lower taxes and claim to be fiscally conservative.
Of course, the Legislature knew exactly what it was doing. There are only two ways for the universities to raise funds: through gifts and grants and through tuition. During the past decade KU ran a successful, major fund-raising effort. One can certainly argue that more must be done on the fundraising side, but in a weak economy in which both grants and gifts are harder to come by, there are limits to what can be brought in. This leaves only tuition.
At the same time that a greater share of the burden of funding universities has been shifted from the Legislature to the universities, both the Legislature and the general public have increased their expectations for what the universities can and should do. The state universities are no longer - if they ever were - solely teaching institutions. They are also high level research institutions working on such things as curing cancer, improving the lives of autistic children, increasing the supply of oil from domestic wells, measuring the thickness of polar ice, and curing diabetes, to name just a few of the ongoing projects at KU alone.
Students and their parents want more and more campus services and facilities - better and more technologically advanced classrooms and broader course offerings, for instance. And we shouldn't forget athletics. Kansans want winning teams - which they've been getting. All of this costs money, lots of money.
Is there a solution to the problem of rising tuition? Of course, there is. We could cut back our expectations as a state. We could decide that we'll settle for mediocrity or even less than mediocrity. We could decide not to teach some subjects and let those students who want to learn these subjects go across the border to Missouri to do so.
We could decide to give up research and become an economic backwater. We could cut back on the quality of the agricultural extension service or the medical school, even if it means our farmers lose crops and people die unnecessarily. I don't think most Kansans want this.
The other alternative is to continue on as we are currently, i.e. to continue to raise tuition to the point where a university education becomes unaffordable for most Kansans. I hope sincerely, for the sake of future generations of Kansans that we don't follow this route.
There is a third alternative solution. I think it's time for our political leadership to make some hard political and fiscal choices. They need to look at higher education in Kansas, set appropriate goals for higher education, establish a realistic budget for higher education, and then keep to it.
To me it is absolute hypocrisy for politicians to complain about increasing university tuition in Kansas when so much of the reason for these increases lies with our political leaders' unwillingness to make the tough choices. If we, as Kansans, truly believe in making public education available for everyone, then we must recognize that funding such education is a public burden and not to be placed only on the students alone.