The looming issue of admission standards for state universities may point to a basic problem with the relationship between the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas Board of Regents.
The State University Admissions Task Force appointed by the Regents has recommended that the job of setting admissions standards for state universities be turned over to the Regents. Currently, all graduates of an accredited Kansas high school must be automatically admitted to a state university if they score at least 21 on the ACT test, rank in the top third of their high school class or complete a prescribed curriculum with at least a 2.0 grade-point average.
Those "qualified" admissions standards were set by the Legislature in 1996; before that, state universities were required to admit all Kansas high school graduates regardless of grades or test scores. Qualified admissions was approved only after several years of heated discussions between those who were concerned about admitting students who weren't prepared for university work and those who clung to the populist notion that any taxpaying Kansas family ought to have access to a university education.
The standards set by legislators no longer make sense, according to the 12-member task force. As state support has declined and universities have to tighten their budgets, it makes no sense to admit and expend resources on students who are almost certain to fail. For instance, Kansas University said its first-year retention rate is 82 percent, compared with a median of 90 percent for 45 comparable universities.
It also makes no sense to have those admissions standards reconsidered by the state legislature every time they need to be tweaked. That's why the task force unanimously recommended that job be turned over to the regents.
Unfortunately, at the same time the task force was making that recommendation, one of its members, former State Sen. Tim Emert, acknowledged that "you'll never get it," meaning that legislators would never let go of that authority.
The question then becomes, "Why not?" It might make sense for the Legislature to set some minimum standards for university admission, but the Legislature should recognize that the Board of Regents, whose only charge is to oversee higher education in the state, is in a better position than legislators to refine admissions standards in a way that benefits the state's university system.
The Board of Regents should be a respected group that everyone - including state legislators - believes has the knowledge, experience and commitment to set important policy for state universities. If that isn't the case, perhaps the state needs to have a discussion about the powers and membership of the board itself.
Whether or not the regents decide to pursue the admissions issue, Emert had some advice that could prove useful - if the regents take it. He told the regents they should personally lobby legislators rather than just sending their staff to do the job. Getting more actively involved with the Legislature might carry more weight and also build the trust legislators need to have to be comfortable turning more policy duties over to the regents board.