A new report on the decline of funding for public research universities should be of special concern to Kansas lawmakers.
The National Science Foundation is sounding the alarm about how diminished funding could reduce the quality of the nation’s public universities. The nationwide statistics are disturbing, and the Kansas statistics are even worse.
According to the NSF report, state per-student funding for the nation’s 101 major public research universities declined by an average of 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2002 and 2010. During that same time enrollment at those universities grew by 13 percent.
At the two Kansas research universities included in the NSF study — Kansas University and Kansas State University — the decline was even greater. Between 2002 and 2010, enrollment at the two schools rose by 10 percent while per-student funding declined by 23 percent. Kansas ranks 42nd among the 50 states in terms of per-student funding at KU and KSU. During the same time period, state funding in Kansas declined by 16 percent and state tax funds appropriated for operating expenses at the schools, as a percentage of state GDP, declined by 14 percent.
It wasn’t always like this in Kansas. According to the figures collected by NSF, per-student funding at the two Kansas universities rose between 1992 and 2001 by 19 percent from $6,003 to $7,166. In the next decade, however, the state failed to keep up. In 2010, per-student funding had dropped, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $5,405.
The NSF notes that declining funding for public research universities has a number of effects, some of which already have been highlighted by KU officials. Reduced funding makes it difficult for public universities to keep salaries high enough to compete with private universities for top faculty members. NSF also is particularly interested in the impact of state funding cuts on the ability of public universities to keep up their research and development efforts. The report notes that public research universities perform more than 60 percent of the academic science and engineering R&D funded by the federal government.
The study also expresses concern about the nation moving toward a two-tier system in which private universities attract higher quality students and faculty, while public universities take a secondary role. It’s easy to see how that could happen in light of the fact that from 1999 to 2009, instructional spending per full-time student increased by 9.9 percent (to $9,986) at public research institutions while it grew by 24.5 percent (to $20,232) at private institutions.
Tuition and private support, of course, are important factors, but so is the commitment of lawmakers to maintain the quality of higher education in their states. The fact that only eight states in the country spend less per student at their state universities certainly indicates that Kansas has room for improvement.