Tuition increases justified but troubling

When will college become unaffordable?

By Walt Braun

The latest round of tuition increases the Kansas Board of Regents approved Wednesday has us wondering where the tipping point is. At what point will college in Kansas — a comparative bargain despite its rising cost — become too expensive for students and their families?

That question won’t be answered until further tuition increases — they seem to be annual occurrences — result in a decline in applications. Or when the number of students pursuing other career avenues or opting for online classes or community colleges for the first two years to stretch their education dollars cuts into enrollment numbers.

That hasn’t happened yet; enrollment continues to inch upward at Kansas State University and other Regents’ institutions. That’s a hopeful sign because it shows that Kansans recognize the value of a university education. But it doesn’t mean that education can’t be priced out of the reach of many Kansas families.

The tuition increases unanimously approved Wednesday — and supported by the respective universities — include a 5.5 percent tuition jump at Kansas State University. Beginning in August, a semester course load of 15 hours will cost Kansas residents $3,659 — $191 more than it did last August. That, of course, is just tuition; students need thousands more for lodging and food.

K-State’s increases weren’t the largest in terms of percentage. Emporia State’s in-state tuition jumped 6.2 percent and Pittsburg State’s rose 6.1 percent. Students at the University of Kansas will pay 5.1 percent more.

Regents’ chairman Ed McKechnie said economic realities and the demand for excellence made the board’s action necessary. The latest increases, he said, “are funding the basics of operating an educational institution, like heating and cooling, health-care costs and retaining quality faculty members.” He also noted that state funding for basic operating costs has remained flat, shifting more of the burden to families.

That the Regents had little choice — and recognize the additional hardship that the increases mean for Kansas families — is small consolation. So is the fact that the Regents universities are better deals than similar institutions in neighboring states. Those facts don’t make tuition increases that have outpaced the rate of inflation and income growth in recent years any easier to absorb.

Kenny Wilk, a regent from Leavenworth, was right to describe the upward trend as “unsustainable.”

It must be confronted before it closes the door to opportunities for young Kansans who dream of going to one of this state’s public universities.

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