The National Science Board sounded the alarm late last month about declining state funding of public research universities across the country.
A report from the NSB noted that state funding per student, adjusted for inflation, had fallen by an average of 20 percent across the country between 2002 and 2010. But at Kansas University, the problem has been even bigger.
According to a KU presentation to the Kansas Board of Regents this spring, per-student state funding fell by more than 30 percent at KU over the same period of time.
Between the 2003-04 and 2011-12 academic years, state appropriations declined from 27.3 percent of the university’s revenue to 21 percent, according to data from the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning.
Rising to fill that gap were revenues from tuition and fees, which rose from 14.6 percent to 19.8 percent of revenues, and grants and contracts, which went from 21.4 percent to 26.2 percent.
By pure dollar amounts, revenue from tuition and fees grew by about 90 percent during that span, from about $124.5 million to $236.8 million. The gap between state money and tuition and fee money shrank from $109 million in 2003 to $14.4 million in 2011.
Annual tuition rates more than doubled for in-state undergraduates during that time, while the increase for out-of-state undergrads was about 76 percent. (For comparison’s sake, those figures are based on standard rates, not the rates for the four-year tuition pact that has applied to new freshmen since fall 2007.)
Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said the reduced state funding had certainly sent the cost of tuition rising to fill the gap.
“Our great concern is ensuring that young people who are prepared to be successful can afford to come to the University of Kansas,” Caboni said.
To alleviate that concern, he said, the university has made scholarship funding available — more than $50 million this year. And, he noted, KU’s tuition level still ranks 27th out of the 34 members of the Association of American Universities. He said he did not believe the level of tuition had hurt recruitment, as evidenced by an increase in the size of this year’s freshman class even as tuition rose again.
Susan Twombly, a professor and chairwoman of educational leadership and policy studies at KU who conducts research on higher education, said the university’s relatively low tuition had long served as a safety net as state funds have declined.
“At KU, we’ve always thought, ‘Oh, gosh, our tuition’s really low. There’s room to expand there without hurting enrollment,’” Twombly said.
But the shift from state money to tuition dollars can’t continue forever, she said.
Declining appropriations also put more pressure than ever on faculty members to chase federal research grants — and not just to fund new research projects. KU and other universities are increasingly relying on such grants to fund graduate students, who contribute greatly to research efforts.
And as tuition costs rise to make up for reduced state funds, she said, the cost of funding doctoral students will increase as well.
“Certainly increasing tuition doesn’t help,” Twombly said. “Even if they’re not paying the tuition directly, someone’s paying it.”
‘A war for talent’
In addition to rising tuition, the NSB report cautioned that continued decline in state funding could mean public research universities are unable to keep their top faculty members from leaving for richer private institutions.
Caboni, who worked at Vanderbilt University before coming to KU, said he saw that fear come to fruition. He recalled that Vanderbilt used its deeper pockets to recruit three different elite researchers to come over from the University of Wisconsin.
“In many ways, we’re in a war for talent,” Caboni said.
Wealthy institutions can offer researchers not only a higher salary, Caboni said, but also pay more startup costs for research and provide more graduate students for assistance.
Pay for tenure-track faculty at KU has plateaued since 2009, according to data kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and pay for professors at all levels falls below the median for doctorate-granting institutions.
Twombly said that when those salaries stopped climbing, she had heard from colleagues across the country that KU could be vulnerable to attempts to hire away faculty.
“People were saying that KU faculty were ripe for the picking,” Twombly said.
Caboni noted that the Kansas Legislature had shown support for KU’s efforts to find top researchers with a $3 million annual commitment to hire 12 elite “Foundation Professors.” The state has also given KU, along with Kansas State University and Wichita State University, support to bolster its engineering programs.
But Twombly said KU — like other public research universities — would likely continue to face major challenges in coming years as they feel pressure from their states to both produce solid research and educate students with a limited pool of funding.
“Declining resources doesn’t help,” Twombly said. “That’s for sure.”