Retired four-star Air Force Gen. Richard Myers stepped in as president of Kansas State University four years ago with eyes wide open.

His alma mater was known for punching above its weight in student and faculty achievement, but years of financial challenges had taken a toll on the Manhattan campus by April 2016. In response, KSU cut programs and staff. Tuition increased. Building maintenance was put off. Endowed giving grew. An archaic budget system was replaced. Student recruitment was overhauled.

Not enough.

“I would say we’re hanging on by our fingernails at K-State,” Myers told state legislators. “We’re hanging on.”

He pleaded last week with a House budget committee to help develop a strategic partnership between Kansas higher education institutions and politicians in the Kansas Legislature. This budget collaboration must recognize investment of tax dollars in colleges and universities directly fuels economic prosperity in the state, he said.

Rep. Ken Rahjes, the Agra Republican who chairs the House Higher Education Budget Committee, said he understood Myers’ overture.

“It needs to be a strong partnership with all of us,” Rahjes said. “No institution is an island and no individual on this committee is on an island.”

Last year, legislators agreed to expand state aid to the public universities by about $30 million in exchange for a one-year tuition freeze. The GOP-controlled House budget committee settled on spending recommendations close to the $12 million hike sought by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. But the package was was far below the $50 million boost the Kansas Board of Regents requested for state universities.

“If we have $50 million, we can keep tuition flat,” said Blake Flanders, president and CEO of the Board of Regents.

A China connection

Tisa Mason, president of Fort Hays State University, said the university’s international reach was beneficial to students on the Hays campus. It allowed FHSU to set rates of tuition and fees at $5,132 annually, which was about half the U.S. average.

“Your investment in Fort Hays State University has resulted in 19 consecutive years of growth with a global reach,” she said. “That global reach along with annual appropriations of state funding allows us to keep tuition among the most affordable in the nation.”

In the past 20 years, FHSU has graduated more than 10,000 students at two Chinese partner universities. The coronavirus outbreak in China will require an immediate change in approach, she said.

Mason said it would require classes to be taught online at Zhengzhou Sias University.

“It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our proficiency in online education,” she said.

The independents

Matt Lindsey, president of the Kansas Independent College Association, said the 20 nonprofit, private undergraduate colleges in the organization received $8 million annually from the state for need-based student financial assistance.

The association’s colleges and universities share 1% of what the state spends on higher education and generates 20% of degrees earned each year in Kansas, he said. However, he said, the financial aid grant program is capable of supporting only one of every two eligible students.

That’s why he objected to the governor’s plan to create a new $5 million need-based student assistance program exclusively for public universities. The Board of Regents requested $10 million and wanted it distributed to private and public institutions.

“Why would we create a new program and direct funds to a different thing when we have one that’s working?” Lindsey said. “My recommendation is to not create a new program.”

Magnet for donors

Steve Scott, president of Pittsburg State University, said the state had 85 counties with declining population. That’s not a reality in university cities, he said.

“Universities are magnets for housing, the arts, athletics. The kinds of things people want,” he said.

He said that helped inspire generosity of donors. An example is $6 million given for construction of a simulation hospital to improve the clinical experience of nursing students. The money came from the late John Parolo, of Croweburg, and two local anonymous donors.

PSU also expanded student scholarship support to $4 million annually from $2.7 million a decade ago.

“That’s an important message and narrative that doesn’t always get communicated,” he said.

The new guy

In January, Jay Golden began work as president of Wichita State University. He came from East Carolina University, where his responsibilities including developing public-private partnerships. Before that, he was a Duke University.

He’s convinced Kansas could learn an economic lesson from development of the Research Triangle anchored by North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina and Duke.

“The Research Triangle is the second-fastest growing region in the United States,” Golden said. “Kansas must invest in research and infrastructure of the new economy.”

Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican and graduate of Wichita State, said lawmakers cared about higher education but the reality was Kansas had a smaller population and tax base than North Carolina.

“We have a limited amount of resources,” Carpenter said.

Getting technical

Jim Genandt, president of the Kansas Technical Colleges, said the seven-college consortium greatly expanded enrollment as the state raised support of technical education courses in response to workforce shortages.

“For the most part,” he said, “technical college students obtain good jobs and are employees, taxpayers and consumers due to having low-to-no student debt.”

He said technical colleges could use an increase in the state’s appropriation for vocational shops and laboratories. He proposed the state double the current $2.5 million allocation to $5 million annually.

“Funded for the first time in 1974 at $2 million, adjusted for inflation it should exceed $11 million in 2020,” he said.

‘Economic engine’

Doug Girod, chancellor at the University of Kansas, said the total of externally funded research surpassed $264 million annually at KU. About $185 million was financed by the federal government.

“That translates into almost 4,200 jobs in the state of Kansas,” he said. “That’s a huge economic benefit, even if you disregard the benefit that comes out of that research.”

He said 29 companies had relocated to the region to work with KU faculty, students and labratories.

Fifty-two start-up companies in the KU incubator support 325 jobs with a $19 million payroll, he said.

“We continue to be, I think, a great economic engine for the state,” the chancellor said. “We are net-importing talent in this region. Our businesses very much need that.”

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