Eagle editorial: Higher-ed cuts dumb

The higher tuition just forced on state universities by the Legislature effectively is a tax increase that will deepen loan debt for some Kansans and put college out of reach for others. And a $66 million cut to higher education is no way to “grow” an economy.

That’s why Gov. Sam Brownback had toured the state advocating for flat funding and why the majority of states have begun restoring higher-education cuts made during the recession.

Yet some Kansas lawmakers cited perennial tuition hikes as justification for cutting state funding by 1.5 percent for each of the next two years and also imposing a damaging salary cap affecting universities.

To no one’s surprise, state universities responded last week by proposing even higher tuition rates and fees for 2013-14.

Wichita State University’s proposed 8.1 percent increase was the largest in the state system. WSU needs the additional $4.8 million from higher tuition and fees to offset its $3.1 million cut in state funding and to pay for some overdue raises. As a result, a WSU student with 15 credit hours would pay $921 more this fall than four years ago.

At the special meeting, the members of the Kansas Board of Regents variously called the cuts “shortsighted,” “irresponsible,” “mind-boggling” and “a public policy nightmare.”

“It’s never good public policy to cut higher education,” said vice chairman Fred Logan, of Leawood.

Regent Robba Moran, the wife of Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., questioned why lawmakers had singled out the University of Kansas for some of the deepest cuts. “We have a Legislature that doesn’t value education,” she said. “If you want outstanding universities, you have to pay for them.”

“Business leaders in this state should be marching on the capital,” said regent Christine Downey-Schmidt, of Inman, who is a former state senator.

The anger is understandable, and striking for its bipartisanship. Unfortunately, the regents can’t do much but vent – and likely approve tuition hikes later this month. As of Friday, it appeared the governor could not veto the specific cuts in the budget affecting higher education.

In response to the regents, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said “we believe that, like state government as a whole, the regents can scrutinize spending and find ways to be more efficient.”

Merrick and other critics including Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, should accept the invitation of Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs at KU, to visit “our campuses so we can share the effects of these cuts, as well as detail our successful cost-saving efforts.”

Because 126 of 165 state lawmakers, or 76 percent, have at least a bachelor’s degree, they should understand how vital public universities and colleges are to the state’s economic future.

They also should have been smart enough to realize that punishing tuition hikes by cutting state funding would only lead to more tuition hikes.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman