Everyone is concerned about the growing cost of tuition at state universities in Kansas, but the Kansas Legislature hasn’t left the Kansas Board of Regents a lot of choice this year.
At their meeting today, the regents are expected to vote on tuition and fee proposals for the six state-supported universities. The universities, struggling to deal with a 1.5 percent budget cut for each of the next two years, have adjusted their tuition requests to try to mitigate the damage. Increased tuition alone can’t undo the damage, university leaders say, but it can give the schools a little money to allocate to their most urgent needs.
For once, Kansas University isn’t seeking the largest tuition increase. In fact, four state universities are requesting percentage increases in their tuition and fees larger than KU’s 4.4 percent increase for Kansas students on the Lawrence campus. Topping the list is Wichita State with a proposed increase of 8.1 percent.
KU Medical Center was particularly hard hit, losing about $8.3 million from its budget over the next two years. To make up for some of that loss, KUMC is seeking a 7.6 percent increase in tuition and fees. Even with the additional tuition, the Medical Center plans to cut 20 slots for nursing students, five in its School of Health Professions, four medical residency spots and two M.D. or Ph.D. students.
Proposed tuition increases at the Medical Center will generate $1.76 million that will be used to cover faculty promotions, utility costs and deficits created by the budget cuts. The Lawrence campus is earmarking portions of its projected $7.8 million in additional tuition revenue to provide salary increases to key faculty and staff who might otherwise be lured to better-paying positions at other schools.
One of the great ironies of the Legislature’s decision to cut university budgets is that it came at the same time many other states were choosing to increase their support for state universities. Another irony is the idea that some legislators appeared to be using budget cuts as retribution for university tuition increases in recent years. Leaders in the Kansas House said they were concerned about high tuition but took action that almost guaranteed further increases.
Gov. Sam Brownback said he studied the budget to find a way to help higher education but, in the end, allowed the funding cuts to stand. His budget-signing message outlined his rationale for a number of line-item vetoes in other areas. For higher education, he offered only kind words of support and a vague appeal for legislative leaders to work with higher education leaders to “craft a shared vision of higher education” for the state.
Universities can’t exactly take that to the bank.
In his veto message, Brownback made this glowing statement: “Our Regents system fuels the engine of our economy by providing a highly skilled workforce and nurturing the next generation of Kansas teachers, doctors, business people and others.”
That certainly seems like something the state should be willing to invest in. Brownback, with the support of higher education leaders, needs to employ the influence he should have with his party’s legislative leadership to change their attitudes and actions toward the state’s university system.
Ill-advised state funding cuts won’t lead to lower tuition — or to a higher education system that provides the best benefit for Kansas taxpayers.