Reforms a needed step

The Kansas Board of Regents’ recent approval of new college admission standards was a needed, albeit modest, step toward helping students succeed in college and improving the national reputations of the state’s public universities.

But it's unlikely that Gov.-elect Sam Brownback and the Legislature will reward universities for this and other reforms by restoring some of the previous budget cuts. In fact, universities may be fortunate if their state funding is flat next fiscal year.

The new admission standards, which apply to freshmen entering high school in 2011, require high school graduates to complete a new, tougher college curriculum with at least a 2.0 grade-point average in order to attend one of the six regents universities. In addition, students will have to be either in the top third of their graduating class, or have a minimum score of 21 on the ACT or 980 on the SAT.

Currently, high school graduates must meet only one of three requirements: Complete a pre-college curriculum, get the same ACT or SAT score, or rank in the top third of their class.

The higher standards will help ensure that more students are ready for college and, one hopes, more kids will work harder in high school. They also should help the universities improve their standing in U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of best universities. Regents universities don’t rank higher because, among other reasons, their admission rates are high and their graduation rates are low.

For example, the University of Kansas had the second-highest admission acceptance rate in the Big 12 Conference last year at 91 percent. At least partly as a result, KU had a graduation rate of only 61 percent, and its freshman retention rate of 80 percent was the lowest in the Big 12.

In addition to increasing admission standards, the regents approved a 10-year blueprint in September that included specific, measurable outcomes aimed at making higher education stronger and as beneficial as it can be to the state’s economy.

Because of these reforms and the key role that universities play in growing our economy, the regents hope that Brownback and lawmakers will support the regents’ plan to restore about half of the $100 million in funding cuts state universities have experienced the past two years. But so far, that isn’t happening.

Brownback said the state doesn’t currently have enough money to fund the regents’ “Kansas Commitment” plan. Brownback also said that he favors discontinuing some degree programs that graduate small numbers of students. And universities are worried about Brownback’s new budget director, Steve Anderson, who has advocated cutting state funding for universities and increasing tuition rates.

To their credit, the regents and the universities continue to make needed reforms, regardless of what the Legislature and governor do. Still, regents chairman Gary Sherrer told The Eagle editorial board earlier this year, “They can’t continue to demand more from the system and fund it less.”

Unfortunately, they can.