Some questions for higher ed

Rep. Marc Rhoades

By A Contributor

Year after year, despite un-changed or increased state funding, the six state-funded Kansas colleges increased tuition far above inflation with little scrutiny. Undergraduate tuition and fees at the six universities increased 137 percent between 2002 and 2012. Email me for tuition tables: From 2002 to 2012, Kansas University raised fees and tuition by 194 percent; Kansas State by 170 percent and Wichita State by 117 percent.

Universities’ all-funds spend-ing was $1.814 billion in 2005; $2.186 billion in 2008; and $2.421 billion in 2012 — a 33 percent increase even with a recession.

Since 2003, unencum-bered carryover cash bal-ances in two student-fee accounts increased by $248 million. In other words, they collected almost a quarter-billion dollars more in fees than they spent on whatever the fees were earmarked to do. General fees plus interest earned on those accounts can be used for other purposes — say, for example, holding down tuition increases. Instead, students paid more in fees and more in tuition and the fee accounts kept accumulating.

This year the Kansas Legis-lature examined the numbers and asked questions with a desire to initiate an open conversation about higher education spending, tuition and student outcomes.

The result: a 1.5 percent reduction to the Board of Re-gents. It hardly qualifies as a slash, but that’s the narrative being used. And since state aid represents less than half of their general use expenditures, a 1.5 percent reduction in state aid amounts to a 0.7 percent reduc-tion to that account.

Compare a 1.5 percent state aid reduction with recent re-quests from Kansas colleges for increases in tuition of up to 8 percent next year, even with inflation below 2 percent.

But the template never changes. Demands for more spending are always “modest and necessary”; reduced spending is always “drastic and draconian” — regardless of the amounts or how the money is used.

The Legislature did not set out to reduce funding. We simply had questions.

Why are so many unfilled FTE positions perpetually placed on the books with money system-atically diverted for other uses?

Even factoring for inflation, why has tuition gone up so much without a correlation to past increases in state funding?

When defaulted on, students’ government-backed loans are paid for, ultimately, by taxpay-ers, so shouldn’t improved graduation and employment rates be prioritized over even higher salaries to the already highly-paid?

By the way, the salary cap we requested was not a cut. You will hear it referred to as a cut, even though salaries were held level and not reduced.

I serve as a commissioner with the Midwest Higher Education Compact — a 12-state network of universities. Last week I attend-ed a meeting in Indiana where we heard from current and former chancellors about the future of higher education. Similar to other sectors — health care, for example — there are two very different driving forces promoting two very different paths: collective institution-oriented versus individual out-comes-oriented.

College students, many un-employed and underemployed, are buried in debt while universities appear more fo-cused on impressing their peers and expanding their infra-structure.

Indiana colleges, among others around the country, are addressing this disconnect. Indiana University-East, just one example, increased its student numbers and graduation rates while decreasing the cost per student by more than 20 percent.

Kansas’ state-funded colleges have been raising tuition at astronomical rates, but under the radar. The only difference this year is they are vocal about increasing tuition using the Legislature’s 1.5 percent budget reduction as a scapegoat.

Early in the legislative session, after a discussion about spending and out-comes, KU’s response was to threaten closure of some of the state’s most viable institutions — KU’s medi-cal campuses in Wichita and Salina. It was a classic bully move. Rather than address legitimate finan-cial questions, they made threats to cut something highly valued by all. Think White House tour closures.

In response, the House and Senate conference committees added a proviso to the budget to prevent those closures, even though insiders understood KU’s intention was to stir up angst among constituents in order to intimidate legislators so they would stop asking questions and hand over the money. Think shakedown.

When the endgame shifts to quantifiable student outcomes — retention and graduation rates, realistic employment tracks, greater efficiencies, reduced costs, lower tuition — collaborative conversations can take place and real-world results can be achieved in Kansas. I remain hopeful and open to such a dialogue.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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