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Eagle editorial: Find higher-ed vision

  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, at 12 a.m.

State legislators and state universities are natural allies in seeking to make Kansas a mecca for talent and business investment. Here’s hoping the lawmakers’ fact-finding tours of campuses, beginning Tuesday, repair some relationships and lead to sure and fair funding that will foster excellence.

Amid complaints about relentless tuition hikes and a lack of budget accountability, the GOP-led Legislature cut state funding for Kansas Board of Regents institutions by $33 million for this year and $32.8 million next year, also largely neglecting KU’s request for help on a new $75 million medical education building.

It did so despite Gov. Sam Brownback’s statewide lobbying for flat funding, as well as others’ predictions that tuition would have to rise sharply as a result of state funding cuts. And sure enough, students are paying significantly more this fall – with Wichita State University’s 8.1 percent hike the largest in the system.

The lawmakers have a point about tuition hikes: Average tuition at regents institutions has risen more than 155 percent over the past 12 years. But that unsustainable trend cannot be disconnected from the decline in state funding since the 1970s.

The most recent cutback also set Kansas apart nationally. While the majority of states have begun restoring funding cut during the recession, the funding of Kansas’ system, about $751 million for the current and next fiscal years, is down from nearly $853 million in 2008.

Through Oct. 30, lawmakers on the budget committees will try to answer their concerns by touring six regents universities, a technology school and community college. They visit Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka and Emporia State University on Tuesday; WSU’s turn is Wednesday.

Leading up to the tour, some of the key players have been setting a newly positive tone. The regents answered legislators’ advance questions with a thick binder of information, and university leaders seem eager to show off their institutions and spending discipline. Such tours should become the rule again, rather than a crisis-driven exception.

“The legislators are concerned about the efficiency of tax dollars that are spent. They’re concerned about quality outcomes, and the schools are concerned about the same thing, so hopefully the communication will bridge the gap that we have right now,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, told the Lawrence Journal-World.

“We have to have – develop – a common vision of what it means to be educated in the state of Kansas,” Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, told Associated Press.

Both sides will need to agree on that common vision in time for the 2014 Legislature to restore some funding, as Brownback advocates. As it is, the dispute risks eroding the quality and drawing power of the regents system, and pricing Kansas students out of their own state schools.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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