A short-sighted view on higher education

06/04/2013 5:30 PM

06/04/2013 5:30 PM

“People are going to look at this all over the nation.”

So said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, last week, after the budget was passed by both chambers.

And she’s right. But they won’t necessarily be gushing over it.

What they will see is a state that has little regard for higher education. In fact, one could conclude that there is outright hostility toward our universities.

“Nationally, this says terrible things about the priority of higher education in Kansas,” said Tom Cabonis, vice chancellor for public affairs at the University of Kansas.

Under the new budget, the Legislature has called for cutting higher education by approximately $35 million over two years. That comes from a 1.5 percent cut for each of the next two years, as well as a cap on salaries.

“The effects of this are going to be devastating,” said Cabonis.

House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Republican from Newton, reportedly vowed that legislators will review further areas to cut in higher education before the next legislative session. The House originally had called for a 4 percent reduction in funding for universities.

For the University of Kansas Medical Center alone, the cuts total $8.3 million over the two years. It likely will mean at least 30 nursing student slots and 15 residency positions will be eliminated. Plus, an unspecified number of physician student slots will need to be cut.

Every state but North Dakota and Wyoming cut their higher education budgets during the recession from 2008-2013. But other states are now increasing funding for higher education, due to higher tax receipts from the economy’s recovery. Kansas is heading in the opposite direction.

This outcome is exactly what Gov. Sam Brownback did not want. He barnstormed the state and lobbied legislators to maintain university budgets without cuts.

Although Brownback was successful in what he wanted in other aspects of the tax and budget plans, clearly he was shunted in this arena.

And there is no line-item veto for these cuts.

You don’t need a vivid imagination to wonder how the ax will affect the real life of universities day to day. (Technical and community colleges did not take the hit like universities.)

Any up-and-coming researcher would think more than twice about coming to Kansas, where he or she is guaranteed a salary cap for two years, a shrinking budget and promises for more cuts to come.

Or what about a current top professor whose talents are wanted and needed all over the country? Why stay in Kansas?

The wild card in this tragedy is what the Kansas Board of Regents will do with tuitions.

After tuitions have been increasing steadily over the past several years, it is expected that tuitions, under the new circumstances, will have to be raised at yet a faster clip. No one knows what that number is yet.

All and all, I would say this is one of the most damaging budget decisions I have ever seen made in Topeka.

The future of our state is at risk, as we scale back the quality of higher education, and demand yet greater financial commitments from students, many of whom are already burdened with hefty loans.

The Legislature is being very short-sighted. These decisions will come back and haunt us for years to come.

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