The budget requests approved last week by the Kansas Board of Regents pose a challenge both to state legislators and to higher education leaders.
The regents say that the state’s higher education funding should increase by 2.3 percent or about $17 million for the next fiscal year. That will bring the system back to about the level of funding it received before this year’s cuts.
Unless there are dramatic changes in the state’s economy, that goal alone may be challenging enough. However, the regents also plan to tell legislators that if Kansas higher education is to achieve some of the goals outlined by the regents and Gov. Mark Parkinson, it must make an even greater financial commitment, something in the neighborhood of $50 million for each of the fiscal years that start in 2011 and 2012.
Parkinson has challenged the board to increase the academic rankings of state universities and place one or two universities among the nation’s elite research institutions. That is a great goal, but it won’t be an easy sell for many state legislators, especially in the current economy.
In fact it wasn’t a particularly easy sell to the regents themselves. University leaders initially sought support for twice that much, $100 million per year in the out years. Regents Chairwoman Jill Docking called that figure “delusional,” but agreed to the $50 million level if universities can show that amount is required to accomplish specific goals.
Docking is exactly on target. This is the question that legislators also will want answered: How will this money be used and specifically how will that benefit the state? They will need to understand why it is important for Kansas universities to increase their academic rankings and how that will pay off for the state. And they will want specifics, not nebulous dreams or goals.
Regent Jarold Boettcher urged his colleagues to set aggressive budget goals, saying, “If we don’t ask for it, we sure as heck won’t get it.” That’s true, but asking for it clearly isn’t enough. The regents and university leaders need to be actively involved in making the case for additional state funding. They are asking for a lot of money; they need to provide a rationale for increased funding that resonates not only with state legislators but with their constituents across the state.
Many Kansans have traditionally looked at our state universities primarily as a place to educate Kansas youngsters. That’s an important mission, but having universities that do the research and develop programs and technology that feed the state economy and provide jobs for all those Kansas students also is vital to the future of the state.
Kansas needs to take its higher education system to the next level. If the governor, the Board of Regents and university leaders truly are committed to that goal, they need to start amassing the data and evidence that will make it possible to sell that dream to state legislators as well.