The reaction to my last column on the problem of increasing tuition at the regents universities was interesting. Many people read my comments to indicate that I favor raising taxes in order to keep tuition low and higher education affordable. That, however, was not my point at all.
I believe that the financing of public education in the United States is one of the most difficult, but also the most critical, issues faced by state governments. In effect, there are only a few sources for such financing: state taxpayer funds, gifts and grants, and tuition. In Kansas over the last decade, the burden of financing increased university costs has come from increased tuition and increases in gifts and grants.
Now, however, as the state and nation move into a period of economic hardship, if not recession, it seems likely that the flow of gifts and grants will slow down, leaving tuition increases as the primary means to finance higher education costs unless more state revenues are allocated to universities. Such an increase in state revenues for universities, however, is problematic because it requires either tax increases or allocations away from other public agencies, agencies which themselves need increased funds.
There is another way, however, to keep tuition low without increasing taxes or reallocating scarce funding away from other state agencies: reducing expenditures. As I said in my last column, my experience of KU over 14 years is that there is very little "fat" at the university. I suspect that the same is true at other regents institutions. Thus, budget reductions at the institutional level will, I believe, adversely affect the quality of education and research the universities can do.
But there is another way. While institutional level reductions would harm both educational and research missions of the regents universities, I believe that a greater coordination of education and research activities among all the universities, including the reduction of program duplication in the system, if reasonable, might well generate significant savings over time.
For instance, do we need as many multiple graduate and professional programs as we currently have in the state of Kansas? Given the relatively small population of the state, would it not make sense to have only one or two graduate programs in each discipline? Do we need four Ph.D. programs in the same specialties in our small state? Do we need multiple professional school programs? Should we have multiple faculty at different institutions doing the same or related research on the same or similar equipment?
Further, I would suggest that the current model under which the regents universities operate often leads to inter-university, intra-system competition. Is such competition a good thing for the state? Does it foster or impede fiscal efficiency? Does it improve the education we provide our students? Also, would closer coordination of the universities and junior colleges make sense now that so many students begin their higher education at junior colleges, precisely because they are so much less expensive? Shouldn't such coordination take place on a system-wide level?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know that the regents universities act on a semi-autonomous basis for most things and that the Board of Regents, while providing oversight, does not often provide the level of detailed, efficiency-based coordination that might be necessary to bring about the kind of changes I'm suggesting could be worthwhile.
If Kansas universities are to maintain high-level research and teaching, then I believe that the Legislature and the Regents need to ask some basic questions about the structure of higher education in the state. They need to put aside local political allegiances and consider what would be best for the state as a whole. This will not be easy. It will require strong leadership both in the Legislature and by the Regents.
A number of years ago I served as a "co-reporter" for the Kansas Citizens Justice Initiative, a law reform effort initiated by the governor, the Legislature, and the judiciary. It rapidly became clear to the members of that commission that one easy way to save substantial amounts of taxpayer revenues would be to eliminate the requirement that every county in Kansas - all 105 - have a courthouse and a sitting judge, regardless of county population or caseload. But it was also very clear that such a sensible fiscal reform would never take place because no legislator was willing to lose his or her courthouse.
I think that much the same happens in the higher education debates. Sometimes, hard times require hard decisions. If we cannot make those decisions, then the people of Kansas will suffer.