In an interview with a Kansas City newspaper last week, Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz made the surprising prediction that his public university would be operating entirely on private funds within the next 20 years.
It would be easy to dismiss his statement simply as a last-ditch attempt to influence the Kansas Legislature as it finalizes higher education funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Unfortunately, the trend for state funding of higher education clearly backs up Schulz’s assertion.
Ten years ago, the state was providing 42 percent of K-State’s budget; that figure has dropped to 22 percent today. Kansas University has seen a similar drop in state support, which now funds just 26 percent of KU’s operating budget; the rest comes from tuition, grants and endowments. By comparison, the University of Missouri gets 35 percent of its funding from the state.
The decline in Kansas funding has been steady for many years but has been accelerated by the recent economic downturn. State funding for higher education has been cut by 13 percent in the past year. Even with sizable tuition increases to try to take up the slack, universities have been forced to lay off faculty and staff and reduce class offerings.
With that kind of history, it’s not hard to imagine the day when “public universities” in Kansas will be getting along without public funds.
In fact, Daniel Hurley, director of state relations for the American Association of State Colleges, told the KC newspaper that Schulz was “right on target.”
“If he had said three years or five years, I’d say no,” Hurley said, “But 20 is not beyond the realm of possibility especially for large public schools with high enrollments and big endowments like a K-State.”
Or a KU.
Schulz’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a threat to state legislators. It’s more a simple reflection of reality. Generations of Kansans have valued higher education and been willing to invest in public universities to educate Kansas youngsters and fuel the state’s economic engine. However over the last decade or two — well before the current economic crisis — Kansas lawmakers started a trend that has systematically reduced the percentage of state university budgets funded by the state.
Faced with a $510 million budget shortfall, it seems unlikely that legislators will find a way to reverse that trend for next year. The question is what will happen five, 10 or 20 years down the road. Will state legislators find a way to reaffirm their financial commitment to public universities in Kansas? Or, as Schulz predicts, will those universities have to find other ways — grants, gifts and probably much higher tuition — to fund their operating budgets?