Make higher education stronger

For all its professionalism and forward thinking, the Kansas Board of Regents didn't have a long-term strategic plan to guide it until last week. The 10-year Foresight 2020 blueprint should be useful not only for the regents but also for lawmakers, the next governor and other Kansans as the regents and public universities work to make higher education stronger and as beneficial as it can be to the state's economy.

The six strategic goals in the plan sound familiar, because they cover much of what challenges higher education today:

* Better align the state's higher education system with K-12 schools and between the universities and colleges themselves.

* Better reflect the state's demographics and include more adult students.

* Improve retention and graduation rates.

* Ensure that graduates emerge with "foundational skills essential for success in work and in life."

* Better align the higher-ed system and the needs of the state's economy.

* Enhance the regional and national reputation of Kansas universities through "aspirational initiatives."

That last goal, related to the U.S. News & World Report rankings and other such lists, rankles some people, raising legitimate questions about why Kansas should be guided by some national rating system's criteria.

But Kansas can't afford to discount the importance of such rankings, because they certainly matter to potential students, faculty and donors. With U.S. News & World Report ranking the University of Kansas 104th and Kansas State University 132nd among Tier 1 national universities, there is room for improvement.

One legislative change made this year could serve multiple goals by allowing different regents institutions to have different admissions standards. If KU, for example, could be more selective in admissions than its fall 2009 acceptance rate of 91 percent, it would move up the ranks.

Some of the recommendations the regents sent to the 2011 Legislature last week also could serve the Foresight 2020 goals, including a need-based $10 million "Kan-Help" financial-aid program, partly funded by allowing universities to retain state sales tax collected on campus; $14.1 million in special funding for high-demand academic programs such as engineering and nursing; and $20.5 million to help make up ground lost to state budget cuts over the past several years.

Speaking about state leaders, Board of Regents chairman Gary Sherrer told The Eagle editorial board last week, "They can't continue to demand more from the system and fund it less."

The regents have given the Legislature three more months than usual to consider the annual recommendations, which spell out "what it takes to provide quality education in this state and to continue to build it," said Sherrer, an architect of the state's 1999 higher-ed reform as lieutenant governor in the Graves administration.

With the state economy still hurting and the likely next governor, Sam Brownback, advocating a spending freeze that would necessitate more cuts, the regents and the institutions they govern could be in for a disappointment next spring. But their advocacy and vision are laudable.

If Kansas is going to see its population grow and its businesses lead their industries, its higher education system must be of high quality.