KU faculty, staff push for improved tuition benefits for themselves and their families

Donna Ginther, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Science Technology and Economic Policy at Kansas University.

Rick Levy is a distinguished professor of law at Kansas University. But when his son, who graduated from KU in 2011, enrolled in courses at the school, he paid the same tuition rate as his classmates.

He did receive a $1,000 annual scholarship available only for the dependents of KU faculty or staff, but he lost it a few years later when there was not enough funding available for all the students who qualified.

Contrast that with a friend of Levy’s, who is a faculty member at a private university elsewhere in the country. Levy’s friend sent five children to costly, high-ranked schools for college — all on his employer’s dime.

Granted, Levy says, it’s probably not reasonable to expect KU to offer the same benefits as deep-pocketed private universities. But even among public universities, KU trails others in the state and some around the nation when it comes to tuition assistance benefits for faculty, staff and their families.

That was the conclusion of a report released last month by a small group that included faculty, staff and student representatives. The report recommended that KU expand tuition benefits to match its neighbors and peers.

Such a move, Levy said, would fit nicely with the university’s often-stated desire to recruit and keep top-flight faculty members.

“It provides a reason for people to come here and stay here — or not go elsewhere where they might get better benefits,” Levy said.

Donna Ginther, a KU professor of economics who studies labor markets in academia, led the task force that produced last month’s report, which was about a year and a half in the making.

KU allows faculty and staff who work at least half-time to apply to take one free course each semester, for up to five credit hours. The policy allows for a maximum of 15 credits per year at KU or, in some cases, at certain other institutions, such as community colleges. However, that policy doesn’t apply to anyone who has a doctoral degree. And it does not extend to spouses, children or dependents of faculty and staff,

KU is the only Kansas Board of Regents university that doesn’t offer assistance to dependents, and one of only two (along with Washburn) not to offer it for spouses, the report found. The group also compared KU with a sampling of other public research universities around the country, and found that KU’s benefits were on the low end among that group, as well.

Children and dependents of KU employees and faculty can get help in another way, however: They are eligible for a merit scholarship from Coca-Cola, as part of the company’s beverage deal with KU, for up to $1,000 per year.

But that benefit has been unchanged since 1998. Since then, average yearly tuition and fee costs for KU undergraduates have increased nearly fourfold.

“When it was started in 1998, I’m sure it provided a good subsidy,” Ginther said, “but it never increased in value.”

At the rate for first-time KU freshmen in 2012-13, $1,000 will pay for about 3.4 credit hours — roughly one-quarter the typical full-time load of 15 credits.

Ginther’s group recommends that KU expand its assistance policy to include spouses, domestic partners, children and dependents of staff and faculty, and increase the number of free credit hours offered to seven per semester — roughly half the typical full-time credit-load. It also would do away with a stipulation that faculty or staff who have doctoral degrees are ineligible. That would make KU’s benefits roughly the same as those at Kansas State University.

“I think that would be a step in the right direction,” Ginther said. She argues that the move would help KU attract and keep good faculty, while also helping to recruit some bright students. Both of those are stated goals in the university’s “Bold Aspirations” strategic plan.

The question, of course, is what the cost would be, at a time when KU officials are waiting to see where the state Legislature lands on funding for 2013-14. Diane Goddard, KU’s vice provost for administration and finance, said KU must actually pay the tuition for staffers approved for the assistance benefit, using a pool of money set aside for that purpose. Individual departments depend on tuition revenue for their budgets.

And, she said, it’s difficult to estimate with any precision how many people might take advantage of expanded benefits.

KU’s University Senate voted unanimously to send the study group’s recommendation to Provost Jeff Vitter last week, but the administration has not yet been able to study possible costs yet.

As a “wild guess,” Goddard said the expansion might cost the university an extra $1 to $2 million a year. Currently KU spends about $275,000 per year on the tuition benefit, Ginther’s report said; Kansas State spends just less than $1 million on its program.

Goddard said she and other administrators would study the recommendation and also consider the possible benefits. She said, however, that all matters budget-related are a bit uncertain for now because of the uncertainty over state funding.

“I can’t predict at this point how this is going to turn out,” Goddard said, “but I can say the task force has done a really good job.”