It won’t be easy to sell the Kansas Legislature on a funding increase next year, but the best shot the Kansas Board of Regents has is to show specifically how additional money would be used help address certain gaps in the state’s workforce.
Commenting on news that the state budget director planned to propose a spending freeze for higher education next year, Kansas University and regents officials accurately pointed out that a well-trained workforce would be essential to the state’s economic recovery. Two specific areas in which higher education hasn’t been able to keep up with demand are nursing and engineering. The regents, in fact, have asked the state for $14.5 million to produce more graduates in those and other high-need fields.
At least in the area of engineering, higher education officials aren’t the only ones voicing concern. In fact, they may find a sympathetic ear in Senate President Steve Morris, who expressed similar concerns at last month’s Kansas Economic Policy Conference at KU.
“I’m firmly convinced,” he said, “that the shortage of engineers is hurting our state economy overall.”
He noted that graduating more engineers would take a multi-level approach. High school counselors need to put more emphasize on engineering careers and make sure students are adequately prepared to pursue engineering degrees when they go to college. Too often, Morris said, students who plan to study engineering are unprepared for the rigorous program and end up changing their majors.
Morris also acknowledged that if secondary and post-secondary schools in the state can address the attrition problem for engineering majors, the state then will have to come up with the faculty and “bricks and mortar” to support the increased engineering enrollment.
This sounds like a legislator who could be convinced to make a greater investment in a program that he considers vital to the state’s economic future. It’s an opening that Kansas higher education officials should try to take advantage of.
It’s not enough just to say “give us more money.” The Board of Regents must show exactly how an investment in certain programs will pay off by filling key gaps in the Kansas workforce. Morris probably isn’t the only legislator concerned about some of those gaps, but in a year when every penny will count, higher education officials need to make the case that additional funding will have a tangible impact on the state’s economic health.