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Parental involvement in college

While Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback extols the virtues of public post-secondary 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 importantly, 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 that's being sent?

Early in January, representatives of the Kansas Board of Regents met with the governor. They were there to discuss the replenishment of funding for higher education cut in the last legislative session. The post-meeting news headline? "Don't Get Your Hopes Up!"

At the opening of the 2014 legislative session, state funding for the KBOR 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 KBOR and the Governor's Budget Reports, state support for public higher education has averaged $761.4 million between FY2005 and FY2015. The total amount raised from all sources to pay for public higher education in Kansas during those years has grown from roughly $2.4 billion a year to approximately $3.8 billion.

Excluding approximately $180 million dollars of ARRA money that washed through the legislative process for higher education late in the last 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 approximately 5 percent per year. The general fund share for the state's universities has declined from 30 percent to approximately 20 percent, while tuition has risen from a little more than 20 percent to nearly 28 percent in 2012 -- and it continues to rise. It appears 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 which demands debate in the Legislature and the upcoming election campaigns.

It's possible the problem's source is the conflict between conservative Kansas values and progressive post-secondary educational content and ideas. The legislative majority, and their voters, appear to demonstrate this with their limited desire to pay for educating young Kansas adults. That should make us all wonder who will provide our future entrepreneurial, managerial, scientific and educational talents.

The actual cost of obtaining post-secondary education has, similar to 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 KBOR analysis found during the recession, between 2007 and 2009, 74 percent of those obtaining degrees or certificates from Kansas's 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, their forecast for the future indicated a steady decline from the current rate of approximately 40,000 certificate and degree recipients per year. New job growth in Kansas has stagnated at less 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.

If the state's decision-makers are uninterested in supporting a true engine of economic growth, it raises the question: "If we don't think it's worth much, why should you?"

Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.