Higher ed funding unsettled

Mark Peterson

By A Contributor

While Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback extolls the virtues of public post-secondary education, its price continues to climb and the Kansas general fund contributes less.

The folks increasingly picking up the tab are parents and the students themselves who are begging and borrowing, often working full-time, low-wage jobs while engaging in part-time education. What’s the message that’s being sent? 

Early this month members of the Kansas Board of Regents met with the governor. They dis-cussed the replenishment of funding for higher education cut in the last legislative session. The headline afterward: “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up.”

At the opening of the 2014 legislative session, state funding for the Regents schools is $31 million less than it was in fiscal year 2007, the last year before the federal recession relief money hit the state treasury. According to data from the Regents and the governor’s budget reports, state support for public higher education has averaged $761.4 million between FY2005 and FY2015. The total amount raised from all sources to pay for public higher education in Kansas over those years has grown from roughly $2.4 billion to about $3.8 billion a year. 

Excluding approximately $180 million that washed through the legislative process for higher education late in the last decade, general tax revenue paid by Kansas citizens and enterprises to fund higher education has been flat. Meanwhile the total cost of higher education has grown about 5 percent per year.

The general fund share for the state’s universities has declined from 30 percent to about 20 percent, while tuition has risen from a little over 20 percent to about 28 percent in 2012 and continues to rise. It appears that Kansas legislators and their electors are getting a cheap thrill — the opportunity to pay less while complaining about the growing expense of higher education. Yet this is a serious policy problem that demands debate in the Legislature and the upcoming election cam-paign.

It’s possible the problem’s source is the conflict between conservative Kansas values and progressive post-secondary educational content and ideas. The legislative majority and their voters appear to demonstrate this with their limited desire to pay to educate young Kansas adults. That should make us all wonder who will provide our future entre-preneurial, managerial, scien-tific and educational talents. 

The actual cost of obtaining post-secondary education has, like everything else, continued to rise — mostly at the rate of inflation plus a tad. The tad represents the slight premiums paid to acquire and retain talent and stay somewhere near the advancing edge of technologies in teaching and research. The folks who pay the difference between what’s appropriated for higher education and its actual costs are getting a hostile message from the Legislature and the voters. 

A recent Regents analysis found that during the recession, between 2007 and 2009, 74 percent of those obtaining degrees or certificates from the 32 higher education institu-tions in Kansas were working in Kansas a year after graduation. The rate of employment for Kansas college grads alone was 64 percent.

But their forecast indicated a steady decline from the current rate of about 40,000 certificate and degree recipients per year. New job growth in Kansas has stagnated at less than 12,000 per year since the start of 2011. One might be forgiven for being skeptical about a long-term trend for a growing economy. If the state’s decision-makers are uninterested in supporting a true engine of economic growth, it raises the question, “If we don’t think it’s worth much, why should you?”









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