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Eagle editorial: Higher ed taking hit

  • Published Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at 5:04 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at 5:38 p.m.

As Kansas House and Senate negotiators try to agree on a two-year budget plan, public universities and colleges are bracing for a funding cut wrapped in an insult.

“I would submit to you that higher ed is out of control,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said last week, complaining about tuition hikes in defending his chamber’s 4 percent across-the-board cut to state universities and colleges.

And Rhoades said he didn’t want to hear that universities would have to raise tuition in response to such a reduction. “They do that anyway,” he said.

Such criticism is pretty rich coming from the Legislature.

The loss of state funding is the prime reason that universities and colleges governed by the Kansas Board of Regents have leaned so heavily on tuition to cover their costs.

Overall state funding has dropped from $829.1 million in 2008 to $763.4 million this year, or about 8 percent. But that’s only the recent history: In 1985, universities saw 49 percent of their funding come from the state and 15 percent from tuition. By 2009, state dollars had diminished to 26 percent and tuition was up to 28 percent.

Naturally, to keep up with costs and attract and retain high-quality faculty and programs, the institutions have raised tuition in varying amounts – 37 and 30 percent since 2008 at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, respectively – even as lawmakers have set high expectations for cancer research, the training of nurses and engineers, and more.

Still, a regents study last year found that Kansas residents pay an average 7.3 percent less to attend KU, KSU and Wichita State University than residents in neighboring states pay to attend similar institutions.

The House budget’s 4 percent cut would mean losses of $2.6 million for WSU, $6.7 million for KSU, and $9 million for KU.

The Senate-passed budget includes a 2 percent across-the-board cut, as well as a $2 million reduction for Wichita’s National Center for Aviation Training. Meanwhile, both chambers have passed bills mandating (but not funding) a center for nonembryonic stem-cell research at the KU Medical Center.

The House and Senate plans contrast with Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget blueprint, which proposed to keep higher education funding flat for two years and included special appropriations. The state’s “glide path to zero (income tax) will not cut funding for schools, higher education or essential safety-net programs,” Brownback promised during his State of the State address.

Given that stated commitment to higher education, the governor should use his powers of persuasion during the House-Senate budget negotiations now, or his veto pen later.

Otherwise, that promise to higher education will have been broken – and universities likely will have little choice but to raise tuition even higher.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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