Kansas Regents budget would ask for $50 million increase

TOPEKA | The Kansas Board of Regents has approved a plan to seek a $50 million increase in state funding for post-secondary schools and create a new program to provide financial help for low- and middle-income students.

The regents will try to persuade lawmakers to approve the proposal during the next legislative session, which will convene after elections for all Kansas House seats and with a new governor.

Kansas has cut funding for higher education by about $100 million in the last two fiscal years. But with the state facing serious budget problems, Regents Chairman Gary Sherrer said it will not be easy to persuade lawmakers to endorse the plan.

"The people of the state are committed to higher education," he said Wednesday. "We need to make sure the people who allocate resources to higher education sense that commitment."

The funding request includes a $20.5 million increase for inflation during the past three years and seeks restoration of $15.7 million for deferred maintenance at state universities, Washburn and community and technical colleges.

It also includes $14.1 million to invest in high-demand academic programs, including expansion of engineering graduates from Kansas, Wichita State and Kansas State. Washburn also would create a doctorate in nursing, and Kansas would add slots for nursing students.

Community colleges would get one-third of the money to help with work force development. Participating colleges and universities would be required to find a 2-for-1 match of $7 million.

One highlight of the budget plan is a proposal that would allow the state's universities to keep state sales tax generated on their campuses for a $10 million scholarship fund for low- and middle-income students.

The program would be funded with $6 million in state sales taxes on purchases made on campuses, plus $4 million provided by the universities.

Regents' spokesman Kip Peterson said Kansas ranks 36th in the nation and last in the Big 12 in per capita state need-based financial aid per student. Meanwhile, student debt continues to increase. In 2008, 62 percent of graduates from public universities had student loans, and the average student debt was $20,200, which is 20 percent higher than in 2004.

Under the program, scholarships would be available to in-state students from families making less than the statewide median income of $50,174 annually. These loans could be forgiven for graduates who chose to work in Kansas.

Regent Janie Perkins of Garden City said she believed the proposal would help.

"There are a lot of students out there who without this help are not going to be able" to attend college, she said.