Eagle editorial: Tuition a deterrent?

As fall enrollment figures across the state’s public higher-education system demonstrate the success of Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to boost technical education, they raise the possibility that annual tuition hikes are scaring away potential college students.

That can’t be good for anybody, least of all the aspiring but cash-strapped young Kansan who decides to pass on pursuing a college degree.

Preliminary numbers announced on Friday showed a decrease of 1.33 percent across the 32 public universities, community colleges and technical colleges governed by the Kansas Board of Regents. Technical colleges were up 472 students while the seven universities’ enrollments were largely flat (123 students fewer) and the 19 community colleges lost a combined 3,000 students.

Wichita State University reported a 2.3 percent decrease, while Butler Community College was down 5.9 percent and Wichita Area Technical College was up 9.6 percent.

Officials interpreted the declines in different ways. Regents president and CEO Andy Tompkins saw the community colleges’ enrollment drop-off as the consequence of the economic improvement from the Great Recession. Washburn University president Jerry Farley cited declining high school graduation numbers as well as an economic component.

WSU president John Bardo said that he had anticipated the lower number because of a recent decision regarding scholarships, but expected the move to pay off in higher enrollment later.

At the University of Kansas, where overall enrollment has dropped 7.7 percent in five years (most recently by 0.55 percent), chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little pointed to a 6.1 percent increase in freshmen and their record ACT scores, while provost and executive vice chancellor Jeffrey Vitter mentioned tough competition for master’s degree students.

But it may not be coincidental that average tuition at regents institutions has risen more than 155 percent over the past 12 years – as state funding has declined. For example, WSU has raised tuition every year for the past 10 years, including 8 percent this year and 4 percent last year.

“Every time we have to raise tuition, it hurts us,” regent Robba Moran said in June, as the latest hikes were approved and the 2013 Legislature cut $35 million in universities’ funding over the next two years.

In advance of campus tours this month aimed at improving the relationship between the universities and state leaders, Republican legislators have loaded up university administrators with 81 questions to be answered about how institutions use state dollars.

One question should guide leaders at all levels going forward: How much higher can tuition go before Kansas families say “no more”?

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman