Earlier this week, representatives of the state’s six universities presented their “wish lists” or budget requests to the Kansas Board of Regents.
Officials at each of the institutions devoted weeks to studying the needs of their schools. Keeping in mind Kansas’ tight fiscal situation, the attitude of state legislators and the governor and the admonition of regents to use a very sharp pencil in adding up the dollars requested, the universities put together budgets they believed they could defend and justify.
Regents Chairman Kenny Wilk said his board told leaders of the six universities to propose funding “enhancements.” The presidents and chancellor followed those instructions and presented enhancements totaling $93 million to the board.
Wilk added, “You always have a lot more in requests than there is in resources. We are trying to make sure schools are affordable and, at the same time, everyone wants quality. You have to balance it.”
Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said, “We have put forth items that are very important items that address needs that we cannot take care of ourselves.”
Public higher education in Kansas enrolls approximately 200,000 people and spends about $3.3 billion a year, with about $800 million of that total coming from state appropriations.
It would be great if all the new, supposedly badly needed, items and programs on the universities’ wish lists could be funded because they probably would help improve the Kansas system of higher education. Unfortunately, state fiscal support for higher education represents less and less of the overall operating budgets for the schools.
KU is called a “state university,” but, for years, this newspaper and this writer have called the school a “state-aided” institution. It probably would surprise a good majority of Kansans to know that the state funds only 15 percent of the cost of operating the KU campus. When the KU School of Medicine is added to the overall equation, state support for KU totals 21 percent.
This situation is not linked to the administration or any one governor or legislative session. It continues year after year. And, it is happening at most every state and every state-aided university. A number of major research institutions receive an even lower percentage of state fiscal support for their operating budgets than does KU.
This being the case, where is the money going to come from to sustain “flagship” research institutions like KU?
Governors and legislators talk about the importance of education, public education — both K-12 and post-high school —but throughout the country, no matter who the governors may be or what political party they represent, the percentage of state funding in university operating budgets continues to drop. As one highly recognized observer of education noted, it’s easier for governors and lawmakers to reduce expenditures for colleges and universities than for K-12 public schools. Parents of children in this age group are greater in numbers, have more personal involvement in their children’s school issues and thus are more likely than parents of college-age students to give education top priority when casting their votes.
Tuition costs are close to — if not at — a level that prices many students out of a college education. Generous donors to a school usually have a limit as to how much or how often they can give to a university. There’s no guarantee research grants will be forthcoming, particularly if a university loses its national standing and reputation because of fiscal cuts. And it’s likely state tax support will be less in the years to come.
What are chancellors, presidents, faculty members, students governors, regents, state taxpayers and the general public thinking about the future fiscal stability of “state-aided” schools such as KU? What happens to a state if its universities do not measure up to peer institutions?
What’s the answer to this very real situation? Private capital campaigns cannot sustain major research universities, and it’s likely the percentage of state aid will continue to decline. It can’t keep going on forever.
Families and students are in debt trying to pay their college bills, and state legislators throughout the country are not increasing their percentage of support for universities.
Will fiscal cutbacks result in fewer major research universities and, if so, what are the consequences for the states, as well as the country?
If Kansas today provides 15 percent of the operating budget for KU’s Lawrence campus, what happens when or if, it drops to 10 percent or less, as it has at other major universities? Again, where is the necessary money going to come from?
There’s no easy answer. Some might suggest the federal government should fund higher education, but this would not be good for the country. The federal government has no business getting into the “education” of Americans.
But, again, where is the money going to come from to meet the ever growing costs of higher education?