A legislative audit released on Thursday should be a wakeup call for Kansas lawmakers.
The Legislative Division of Post Audit was asked to look at how many excess credit hours were earned by graduates of state universities in Kansas. The audit was requested after legislators became aware of a Florida study that indicated excess credit hours cost that state about $62 million a year.
Not only did the audit show that lawmakers had no reason to be concerned about excess credit hours at Kansas universities, it also revealed an embarrassing shift in the state’s financial commitment to higher education.
In just four years Kansas legislators have tipped the funding balance at state universities so much that student tuition, for the first time, is financing a larger percentage of state university budgets than state allocations. In 2005, state appropriations made up 56 percent of higher education expenditures while tuition contributed 44 percent. By 2009, the state was paying 49 percent of those costs and tuition was paying 51 percent.
Rather than worrying about how much money the state is “wasting” on students who graduate with excess hours, legislators should be concerned about the role they are playing in making higher education less affordable for Kansas students.
On the credit-hour issue, the audit showed that one in six graduates of Kansas state universities had more than the required credit hours (defined, as it was in Florida, as 115 percent of the hours required for a degree). However, those hours represented only 1.5 percent of the attempted credit hours, and the state would have realized no savings from reducing those hours because funding for Kansas universities isn’t tied to the number of credit hours being taught, as it is in Florida.
University officials in Kansas already have an incentive to reduce excess hours and are taking steps, such as stronger advising systems, to achieve that goal.
Far more important than any concerns legislators had about excess credit hours are the financial figures revealed by the audit. From 2005 to 2009, tuition revenues at the state’s six universities increased by 41 percent. The higher tuition rates that produced that increase were a direct result of state allocations to universities that failed to even keep up with the rate of inflation.
State universities drive the state economy by conducting important research and providing a well-educated state work force. They also are intended to be a place where Kansas taxpayers can afford to send their qualified sons and daughters to obtain a university degree. The audit clearly shows that the state is backtracking on that responsibility by placing a greater financial burden on students and their families.
It’s true that the economic challenges of the last year or two forced state lawmakers to make some difficult spending choices. Nonetheless, the audit figures released last week should force legislators and our next governor to face the consequences those spending decisions are having on the quality and affordability of higher education in Kansas.