State lawmakers had ample opportunity to get answers about higher education before and during the six-day tour of Kansas Board of Regents campuses last month. Whether seeing is now believing won’t be known until the 2014 Legislature reconsiders the 2013 session’s counterproductive and disproportionate two-year funding cuts to state universities, but there is as much reason to hope as to worry.
Gov. Sam Brownback can be expected to be in state universities’ corner, having argued unsuccessfully for flat funding last spring.
About 76 percent of the lawmakers have at least a bachelor’s degree (up from 68 percent in 2011), which should give them a firsthand understanding of what a higher education means. Twenty years after graduation, for example, those with at least a four-year degree each earn $25,000 more a year than those without, according to Business Insider. That’s real money in the Kansas economy as well as Kansans’ pockets.
The Board of Regents’ goals line up nicely with those of the governor and Legislature, especially the ones about supporting the economy with university research, reducing workforce shortages in high-demand fields, and meeting “industry expectations for core workplace skills” such as math, analytical reasoning and communication.
And it’s impressive that as the state and nation have tried to pull themselves out the Great Recession since 2010, Kansas universities have launched 37 startup companies and 20 businesses have moved to Kansas to partner with a higher-ed institution.
Kansas can use much more of that. So the Legislature ought to be excited about big ideas such as Wichita State University president John Bardo’s plans for a new engineering building, with room for business research and incubation, and for a multi-building tech park on campus.
Such bold thinking is going on across the regents system, which is why Kansas should join the post-recession trend of states reinvesting in higher ed. As it is, Kansas’ system is operating on $77 million less in state funding than it received in 2008, and the fiscal 2015 budget includes another $32.8 million reduction.
Meeting with The Eagle editorial board last week, regents chairman Fred Logan said the board’s top priority for the session starting in January was restoring the funding that was cut for both fiscal 2014 and 2015.
In his own meeting with the editorial board, Bardo expressed the more modest hope that legislators would “not do any further cuts.”
Logan said the legislative tours he saw were not adversarial, and he is optimistic that the relationship will continue to be positive and productive.
University leaders and regents will need to assure lawmakers they are doing everything possible to limit tuition and fee hikes, and take seriously concerns about rising student debt.
In turn, lawmakers should not try to pit higher ed against K-12 schools or other state-funded services – as Rep. Jerry Lunn, R-Overland Park, seemed to be doing in warning University of Kansas officials “you will take some serious pain” if the Kansas Supreme Court seconds a lower court’s ruling that public school funding is unconstitutionally low.
Speaking about the tour, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, told Associated Press: “The real impact is the realization that we are closer together than we think we are.”
That’s a welcome change. State lawmakers would do well to treat state universities as the economic movers and shakers that they are, not the first places to look for budget cuts.