It's relatively simple for state universities - and particularly, it seems, Kansas University - to say "we need" more money to operate our schools. But no matter how they try to justify tuition increases to provide that funding, there is little doubt that they increasingly are placing a university education out of reach for many Kansas students.
At last week's meeting of the Kansas Board of Regents, the state's six universities presented proposals for fall tuition increases that ranged from 1.9 percent to 8.4 percent. Guess who was at the top? You've got it; KU.
The 8.4 percent increase will go to incoming freshmen next fall who have the supposed privilege of knowing they will pay the same tuition for four years at KU. Their tuition is based on the estimated average tuition increase over the next year, which is 7 percent. Apparently, there is little chance of more moderate increases in the years to come.
The regents had said earlier that they didn't want to see tuition increases of more than 6 percent. All of the other universities proposed increases that were below that cap, except for Kansas State University, which is asking to try a system in which they would raise tuition for juniors and seniors at the school by 7.2 percent.
On top of the tuition increases, KU students also will face a 6 percent increase in course fees and a 12.1 percent increase in required campus fees. And this is all before they have to cover their books or living expenses.
The most common justification for the proposed increases - KU's proposal was 2 percentage points above the inflation rate - is that the tuition increases were necessary to make up for a lack of state funding. One regent, however, questioned whether passing costs along to students "pressures the Legislature" to increase funding. It's a good point. In tight economic times, as we are now experiencing, many legislators probably see the increases as a failure of universities to wisely manage their funds and live within their means.
That's what Kansas families have to do, and every time tuition goes up, it becomes more difficult for some families to afford to send a child to a state university. Officials like to point out that financial aid also is being increased, but that aid often is unavailable to students with marginal need or academic records and studies have indicated that the mass of paperwork to obtain aid is difficult for many families to navigate.
One effect of higher university tuition is likely to be more students enrolling in community colleges, where they can start their higher education at a lower cost. That isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as community colleges are providing high quality classes that will transfer easily to university credit.
A more unfortunate outcome, however, is what seems to be a slow movement toward a four-year university education becoming a luxury for the elite. Students with marginal academic skills but adequate financial resources will be able to pursue university degrees while less financially able students, even those with greater academic talent, will be left behind.
University officials may contend that won't happen, but if university tuition continues to outpace inflation - not to mention struggling families' incomes - common sense tells us it will.