By Tim Carpenter
CEOs see state funding pivotal investment in Kansas’ future
Two years of multimillion-dollar state budget cuts to Kansas higher education and annual escalation in student tuition and borrowing beg the question: What next?
Political debate about the future of taxpayer financing of the 32-school Kansas Board of Regents system returns to the forefront in mid-January when the 2014 Legislature assembles in Topeka. Tens of thousands of lawmakers’ constituents who are investing years of their life and accumulating hefty debt while earning associate, bachelor and graduate degrees will track these high-stakes deliberations.
Chief executives of the area’s most influential schools — Washburn University, Kansas State University, The University of Kansas — said they wouldn’t be shy about laying down arguments at the Capitol for stronger state investment in higher education.
They were less certain about tuition adjustments for the 2014-15 academic year, suggesting those decisions would be influenced by budget decisions made by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led House and Senate.
The wish list of university leaders Kirk Schulz, Bernadette Gray-Little and Jerry Farley include appeals to restore $23 million decapitated in the current fiscal year and $25 million scheduled to be withdrawn in the fiscal year starting July 1.
“It’s important for Kansas to support higher education so that we can have a better-educated populous and work force,” said Schulz, president at K-State in Manhattan. “This gets lost in the shuffle sometimes when we talk about tax policies and tax rates. If we cannot produce the work force that industry needs, they will go elsewhere.”
Gray-Little, chancellor of the main KU campus in Lawrence and the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., said thriving universities were a major component in the quest to draw companies and innovators to Kansas. Research at higher education institutions fosters job creation, and quality graduates make meaningful contributions in their chosen fields, she said.
But, Gray-Little said, politicians working through budget issues should recognize the role of universities and colleges in developing an informed citizenry.
“We take that seriously,” the chancellor said. “We are interested in students being competitive for jobs and having faculty create jobs, but we are also interested in students who are well-informed, who read, who know politics, who know history and who can participate fully in the life that is available to them in their communities.”
Farley, president at Washburn, said the Topeka university relied less on state tax support than KU and K-State, but the record was clear that decades of investment in public education in the United States served as a linchpin to economic vitality.
Loss of the guarantee to all Kansans of a suitable K-12 public education and national commitment to broad opportunity at colleges and universities would come with great peril, he said.
“The better educated we are, the better the economy has done,” said Farley, who worries retrenchment in public education would diminish the middle class. “I don’t think there is any question about it. That’s what will occur.”
“The question is: How long will it be before we’re willing again to invest in education at all levels?” Farley said.
He said Brownback’s proposal to deliver state government aid to districts for all-day kindergarten throughout Kansas was a good sign. Many states went to that model long ago, he said, but such an investment would show return for the Kansas economy.
While Brownback vowed to push for about $80 million necessary to expand kindergarten offerings, he has yet to make a firm public commitment about reversal of the higher education cuts.
Schulz, Farley and Gray-Little said student tuition rates at the three universities were likely to rise next year, but it was too early to discern what percentage adjustment would be necessary. All three said they remained confident the ultimate cost of a university education in Kansas provided recipients a lifetime of dividends.
“There’s been a lot of dialogue about the value of college degrees,” Schulz said. “Is it still worth it to accumulate $25,000 in debt to go to school? There are a lot of statistics out there to show that the lifetime earnings of a person with a college degree are significantly larger than a person who does not attend a college or university.”