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SPOTLIGHT
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Asking questions of higher education

Published on -6/24/2013, 1:58 PM

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By MARK RHOADES

Kansas House of Representatives

Year after year, despite unchanged or increased state funding, the six state-funded Kansas colleges increased tuition far above inflation with little scrutiny. Undergraduate tuition and fees at the six universities increased 146 percent between 2002 and 2013; inflation during that time was 30 percent. From 2002 to 2013, KU raised fees and tuition by 208 percent; Kansas State University, 184 percent; Wichita State University, 124 percent; Emporia State University, 131 percent; Pittsburg State University, 135 percent; Fort Hays State University, 91 percent.

University all-funds spending was $1.814 billion in 2005; $2.186 billion in 2008; and $2.421 billion in 2012 -- a 33-percent increase in spending even with a recession.

Since 2003, unencumbered carryover cash balances in two student fee accounts increased by $248 million. In other words, they collected almost a quarter-billion dollars more in fees than they spent on whatever the fees were earmarked to do. General fees plus interest earned on those accounts can be used for other purposes, say, for example, holding down tuition increases. Instead, students paid more in fees and more in tuition and the fee accounts kept accumulating.

This year, the Legislature examined the numbers and asked questions with a desire to initiate an open conversation about higher education spending, tuition and student outcomes.

The end result was a 1.5-percent reduction to Regents, which hardly qualifies as a slash, but that's the narrative being used. And since state aid represents less than half of their general use expenditures, a 1.5-percent reduction in state aid amounts to a 0.7-percent reduction to that account.

Compare a 1.5-percent state aid reduction with recent requests from Kansas colleges for increases in tuition up to 8 percent next year, even with inflation below 2 percent.

But the template never changes: Demands for more spending are always "modest and necessary"; reduced spending is always "drastic and draconian" -- regardless of the amounts or how the money is used.

The Legislature did not set out to reduce funding. We simply had questions.

Why so many unfilled full-time employee positions perpetually placed on the books with money systematically diverted for other uses?

Even factoring for inflation, why has tuition gone up so much without a correlation to past increases in state funding?

When defaulted on, students' government-backed loans are paid for, ultimately, by taxpayers, so shouldn't improved graduation and employment rates be prioritized over even higher salaries to the already-highly-paid?

By the way, the salary cap we requested was not a cut. You will hear it referred to as a cut, even though we requested salaries be held level, not reduced.

I serve as a commissioner with the Midwest Higher Education Compact -- a 12-state network of universities. Recently, I attended a commissioner's meeting in Indiana where we heard from current and former chancellors about the future of higher education. Similar to other sectors -- health care, for example -- there are two very different driving forces promoting two very different paths: collective institution-oriented versus individual outcomes-oriented.

College students, many unemployed and underemployed, are buried in debt, while universities appear more focused on impressing their peers and expanding their infrastructure.

Indiana colleges, among others around the country, are addressing this disconnect. Indiana University-East, just one example, increased its student numbers and graduation rates while decreasing cost-per-student more than 20 percent.

Kansas state-funded colleges have been raising tuition at astronomical rates, but under the radar. The only difference this year is they are vocal about increasing tuition using the legislature's 1.5-percent budget reduction as a scapegoat.

Early in the session, following a discussion about spending and outcomes, the University of Kansas' response was to threaten closure of some of Kansas' most viable institutions: KU's medical campuses in Wichita and Salina. It was a classic bully move. Rather than address legitimate financial questions, they made threats to cut something highly valued by all. Think White House tour closures.

In response, the House and Senate conference committees added a proviso to the budget to prevent those closures from happening, even though insiders understood KU's intention was to stir up angst among constituents in order to intimidate legislators so they would stop asking questions and hand over the money. Think shakedown.

When the endgame shifts to quantifiable student outcomes -- retention and graduation rates, realistic employment tracks, greater efficiencies, reduced costs, lower tuition -- collaborative conversations can take place and real-world results can be achieved in Kansas.

I remain hopeful and open to such a dialogue.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, represents the 72nd District in the Kansas House.

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