Budgeting or setting university tuition rates for two or more years in advance has some appeal but, from a practical standpoint, it mostly doesn’t work very well.
Gov. Sam Brownback has indicated he will propose a two-year budget for state government next year, and his School Efficiency Task Force said last week that it would recommend having the Legislature fund public schools on a two-year budget cycle. To continue the trend, the Kansas Board of Regents discussed the possibility last week of setting tuition rates for the state’s public university every two years instead of annually, as currently is the case.
Having a two-year funding cycle may seem like a good way to plan ahead for future needs, but, in the current, unpredictable economic and political climate, it poses a number of problems.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that lawmakers will lock the state into a budget that will prove to be unrealistic. Because of impending income tax cuts, the state’s financial picture is particularly uncertain right now, with wide disagreement about how the tax cuts will affect state revenue. The tax cuts and other factors make it next to impossible to predict the state’s financial condition a year from now, let alone two years.
Even the best laid plans can fall victim to political or financial shifts. As State Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, pointed out during a Legislative Educational Planning Committee meeting last week, state legislators passed a three-year school funding plan several years ago, but, when the recession hit, they not only abandoned plans to increase school funding but also ended up making cuts in that budget. There is no way to bind future legislatures to the actions of current lawmakers.
When it comes to tuition, forcing universities to lock in tuition for more than one year at a time may subtly contribute to inflated tuition rates. Rather than risk a shortfall in tuition income, university leaders would be inclined to seek two-year increases that would be almost certain to cover their needs. That probably already is the case with Kansas University when it sets its four-year guaranteed tuition for incoming freshmen. If anything, officials would be inclined to overestimate their actual tuition needs over the next four years to be on the safe side.
There may have been times in history when the state’s economy and politics were stable enough to allow for multi-year budget planning. That doesn’t seem to be one of those times. Planning ahead is a good idea, but right now, the future is just too hard to predict.