TOPEKA — Complaining that the Legislature had forced their hand, Kansas regents approved a sweeping package of tuition increases for the state’s public universities on Wednesday.
The votes on all the increases were unanimous and regents one after another lashed the state Legislature for funding cuts passed in the budget after midnight on June 2.
The regents said that Kansas’ main competitors – Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa and Nebraska – all increased state support for their university systems this year.
“The only state in the area that was decreased is our state,” said Regent Dan Lykins of Topeka.
“Kansas doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” added Regent Robba Moran of Hays, the wife of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran. “Students have choices, so every time we have to raise tuition, that works against us.”
Moran said the reductions are a continuation of a long-term trend that has reduced the state’s funding of universities from about 75 percent of total funding in the 1970s and 1980s to 22 percent now.
House leaders who supported the cuts have said universities have raised tuition consistently over the past decade and should look for ways to spend money more efficiently.
The tuition increases approved Wednesday:
Despite requests from Gov. Sam Brownback to hold the universities’ appropriations steady, state lawmakers decided to trim about $33 million a year in each of the next two years.
Regents made a point of noting how much each university’s tuition increase will be, and how much was due to state funding cuts, so students and parents could compare the actual increases to what they would have been without the Legislature’s reductions.
They also repeatedly noted that the combination of a 1.5 percent cut in general fund support, plus a Legislature-imposed salary plan, actually resulted in about a 3 percent cut overall for each of the next two years.
Wichita State University President John Bardo said after the meeting that he thought the regents made the right decision, although it’s always painful to raise tuition.
“It’s not something that anyone in higher ed does with any kind of glee or positive feeling,” Bardo said.
However, he said, universities are facing much higher costs than they did years ago because of the need to acquire and constantly update technology for teaching and research.
Wichita State’s tuition increase was the biggest percentage increase among the universities. Bardo said much of that is because the tuition at WSU started out lower than the state’s other two research-oriented universities, the University of Kansas and Kansas State.
WSU’s overall 8 percent increase breaks down into 3.5 percent to offset state cuts and 4.5 percent to establish a wage pool for merit raises for employees, Bardo said.
Bardo said to keep costs down, he has cut $1.8 million in planned spending and is delaying expansion of a “technology transfer” program. The program shares the university’s research with business to improve the local economy, especially in the all-important aviation sector.
He said going with a lower tuition increase would make the university more accessible to students, but added, “Access without quality is no bargain.”
Regent Christine Downey-Schmidt called on “every student and parent” and “every faculty member that’s struggling to make ends meet” to contact their lawmakers and write letters to newspapers protesting the tuition increases.
“Unless they take up the mantle to talk to these policy makers about the impact, nothing will change, because there’s a different focus right now in the Legislature,” Downey-Schmidt said. “It’s not about being your partner, it’s about cutting money and narrowing government services.
“Until the people who put policy makers, decision makers, in office start to push back against the kind of changes that are occurring in their lives. … I don’t think things are going to change.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, called the regents’ statements “bologna” in a brief exchange of text messages with the Associated Press.
Rhoades said the regents have raised tuition repeatedly in excess of inflation over the past 10 years.
As for the regents’ assertion that the Legislature forced tuition hikes, he said “I’m not buying it.”
In an e-mail to The Eagle, he added, “State Aid represents less than half of the universities’ General Use Expenditures, so a 1.5 percent reduction in State Aid amounts to only 0.7 percent less to that account. Perhaps their frustration with the legislature is less about the reduction and more about having to defend tuition increases.”
However, Sen. Jay Emler, R-Emporia, said he agreed with the regents that cutting the universities’ state allocations was a bad idea.
“When we talk about building a more competitive and business-friendly environment, we should look at what we’re doing to our institutions of higher learning,” said Emler, a moderate Republican who was Senate majority leader last year but lost that role after a conservative takeover in the 2012 elections.
“If we keep cutting funds … and raising tuition, we’re not going to have the same number of students,” Emler said. “I know of people this year sending their kids out of state (for college) because it would be cheaper. What are the chances those kids are going to come back?”
Contributing: Roy Wenzl of The Eagle