Members of the Kansas Board of Regents deserve applause for their recent efforts to sell the state on the need to support higher education in Kansas.
In the last month, the regents have held a dozen meetings with business leaders across the state to talk about how higher education supports the state economy and how it can do an even better job of responding to the state’s business and employment needs.
As they had done in other meetings in every corner of the state, regents outlined to a group of Lawrence leaders this week why higher education is important to the state’s economic health. An educated population, they pointed out, supports the state tax base and makes fewer demands on social services. More directly, it provides the trained workers and researchers needed to support all kinds of businesses in the state.
The question then becomes, Regents Vice Chairman Gary Sherrer said, whether it is OK for the state to endanger the state’s economic health by continuing to drain resources from higher education.
Clearly, the regents think the answer to that question is “no,” but they haven’t always done the best job of making that case to Kansans across the state. That’s why it’s great to see them stepping up their efforts to share information that backs up their claims about higher education.
They pointed out, for instance, that since 1988 enrollment in the state’s seven universities (including Washburn), has risen by 13 percent while per-student funding from the state has decreased by 20 percent. Overall state spending on universities rose through fiscal year 2009, but it hasn’t kept up with the rising number of students.
During that same time period, the percentage of the state budget dedicated to higher education has dropped from 21.1 percent to 17.1 percent. It’s easy for today’s legislators to chalk that decline up to the current economic crisis, but the greatest drops in this category actually occurred between 1988 and about 1995. For two decades, the state’s financial support of higher education, as a percentage of its budget, has steadily eroded. Now, state university are facing major reductions in state support.
Do Kansans really agree with these funding reductions that stretch university resources and drive up tuition costs for Kansas students? When the facts and figures are put before them, many probably see the need to fight for more higher education support. Hopefully, they will share that opinion with their representatives in the Kansas Legislature.
Traveling across the state, sharing information and gathering input from local leaders is a great way to draw attention to both the contributions and the needs of the state’s higher education system. In recent years, regents have taken a far too passive approach to selling the importance of higher education across the state, and university leaders have not done an effective job of outlining their needs.
It’s good to see current members of the Board of Regents taking a more active role in building enthusiasm and support for state universities.