Editorial: Education lifeline

Legislators are considering abolishing a higher education savings program just when it may be needed most.

Over the last 10 to 20 years, Kansas lawmakers have whittled away at higher education funding, until the state now provides only about 20 percent of Kansas University’s operating revenue.

To help make up for that declining support, state universities and the Kansas Board of Regents have turned to tuition to help shore up their budgets. Rising tuition, however, has increased the danger that growing numbers of Kansas residents may not be able to afford to attend any state institution of higher learning.

Now, state legislators are thinking about getting rid of a program designed to help low-income Kansas families save for their children’s post-high school education. Under the Kansas Investment in Developing Scholars program, established in 2007, the state matches funds put into education savings accounts up to $600 per year. The funds are deposited into a tax-deferred savings plan that is open to all Kansans, but families must meet income requirements to receive matching funds from the state. When their children reach college age, they will be able to use the funds to pay for expenses at any college, vocational-technical school or community college that’s eligible to receive federal student financial aid.

The K.I.D.S. program can handle up to 1,200 accounts at one time; just under 1,000 accounts currently are active. That’s 1,000 Kansas youngsters who have a better chance of being able to pay for additional education and training after they graduate from high school.

However, if some state legislators have their way, this matching program may soon be history. During a meeting of the House General Government Budget Committee last week, legislators questioned whether the program is “a core function of government” and raised suspicions about how families might scam the program. Although the average income for families participating in the program is $33,718 per year, legislators questioned whether they really needed the matching funds. They also worried that people might try to game the program by enrolling in college, getting the funds and then dropping out and getting a refund that would include the state’s match.

KU currently estimates it costs $18,764 a year to pay for tuition, fees, room, board and books at KU. It’s pretty hard to save that kind of money on $33,718 a year. The K.I.D.S. program also has clear restrictions about how money can be used, and, if it is not used for education purposes, the state funds will be subtracted and tax penalties will be added. It might be possible to scam the program, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Studies have shown that having any kind of savings makes it more likely that students will pursue higher education. Those savings may become even more necessary as legislators seek to balance the state budget by cutting money from state university budgets. On Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee approved a 4 percent across-the-board reduction in Gov. Brownback’s recommended budget for higher education. That’s a reduction of $29.2 million.

It’s hard to imagine that any of the schools could absorb such losses without turning to tuition increases — increases that many students would be unable to handle. Legislators should think long and hard before they get rid of the savings program that might mean the difference for many of those students.