Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark Peterson: State sends wrong higher-ed message


While Gov. Sam Brownback extolls the virtues of public postsecondary education, its price continues to climb and the Kansas general fund contributes less. The folks increasingly picking up the overall tab are parents and, much more important, the students themselves, who are begging and borrowing and in many cases working full-time, low-wage jobs while engaging in part-time education.

What’s the message being sent?

At the opening of the 2014 legislative session, state funding for the Kansas Board of Regents schools is $31 million less than it was in fiscal year 2007, the last year before the federal recession relief money hit the state treasury. According to data from the regents and the governor’s budget reports, state support for public higher education has averaged $761.4 million between fiscal years 2005 and 2015. The total amount raised from all sources to pay for public higher education in Kansas over those years has grown from about $2.4 billion a year to about $3.8 billion.

Excluding the federal stimulus money from late in the past decade, general tax revenue paid by Kansas citizens and enterprises to fund higher education has been flat. Meanwhile, the year-over-year total cost of higher education has grown about 5 percent per year. The general fund share for the state’s universities has declined from 30 percent to about 20 percent while tuition has risen from a little more than 20 percent to about 28 percent in 2012, and it continues to rise.

It appears that Kansas legislators and their electors are getting a great cheap thrill – the opportunity to pay less while complaining about the growing expense of higher education. This is a serious policy problem for Kansas that demands debate in the Legislature and the upcoming election campaigns.

The actual cost of obtaining postsecondary education has, like everything else, continued to rise – mostly at the rate of inflation plus a tad. The tad represents the slight premiums paid to acquire and retain talent and stay somewhere near the advancing edge of technologies in teaching and research. The folks who pay the difference between what’s appropriated for higher education and its actual costs are getting a pretty hostile message from the Legislature and the voters.

A recent Board of Regents analysis found that during the recession, between 2007 and 2009, 74 percent of those obtaining degrees or certificates from Kansas’ 32 higher-education institutions were working in the Sunflower State one year after graduation. The rate of employment for Kansas college grads alone was 64 percent. But the regents’ forecast for the future indicated a steady decline from the current rate of about 40,000 certificate and degree recipients per year. New job growth in Kansas has stagnated at fewer than 12,000 per year since the start of 2011. One might be forgiven for being skeptical about a long-term trend for a growing economy.

By being uninterested in supporting a true engine of economic growth, the state’s decision-makers prompt a question: “If we don’t think it’s worth much, why should you?”