For weeks, Kansas legislators grilled the state’s universities.
How much do administrators make? How much is spent on research? How many students earn degrees in four years? How many professors are tenured? How much class time is taught by graduate assistants?
“The scrutiny has never been more intense,” said Tim Emert, a member of the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state universities.
A group of key lawmakers took a six-day tour of the state’s universities to better grasp what taxpayers get for the $750 million spent on higher education. Their verdict could be rendered at budget time.
With income tax cuts squeezing revenues and the state facing the prospect of being ordered to spend hundreds of millions more on elementary and secondary schools, lawmakers are eyeballing colleges and universities.
The lawmakers’ tour put up for fresh discussion whether Kansas taxpayers get a solid return on higher education subsidies.
That comes after state funding for colleges and universities was cut by 3 percent over two years, this year and next.
Legislators are looking at how much schools are spending on administrative costs and weighing that against tuition increases in recent years.
“We’ve got a lot of money invested in it,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Johnson County Republican. “What are we getting in return?”
The regents are asking the Legislature to restore $36 million in cuts made this year, but lawmakers warned that university budgets could shrink further if the state Supreme Court orders more spending on K-12 education.
“You will take some serious pain,” state Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican, told University of Kansas administrators Wednesday morning.
Before their road trip, lawmakers asked the universities to answer a lengthy questionnaire digging into some of the deepest details of their operations. Questions included:
• What is the return on investment for research, and what is the economic impact of patents created by the universities?
• How much is the tuition per student, and how much does the state spend per student?
• How much is the total cost for an undergraduate to attend a university for one year, and how much of that is borne by the state?
• How is the productivity of faculty members measured?
Some lawmakers see the questionnaire as a pretext for gathering evidence to justify more cuts, an argument dismissed by the conservative legislative leaders who organized the bus tour.
“It really looked as if a lot of the questions were written in such a way to give the budget committee justification to cut university budgets even more,” said Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat.
But some conservative leaders think there hasn’t been enough done in previously — whether by the Legislature or the Board of Regents — to hold universities accountable for spending.
“There is a sense in previous years it’s been academia for academia’s sake, and you just increase the money with no justification,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.
The state is spending $751 million on higher education this year, down $77 million from 2008, when the recession hit the state budget.
Meanwhile, tuition has increased 37 percent at the University of Kansas from 2008 to 2013. At Kansas State University, tuition rose about 30 percent over the same time.
What’s happened in Kansas mirrors a pattern seen nationwide.
Every state except North Dakota and Wyoming spent less per student on higher education in 2013 than it did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Likewise, as state spending dropped, average tuition nationwide increased by 27 percent between 2007 and 2013.
The tuition increases — as well as threats by KU last year to close its medical school’s Salina campus because of budget cuts — fueled tension between higher education and the Legislature.
Tuition increases coupled with rising administrative expenses were cited in talking points that Merrick recently distributed to House members in arguing against increased spending.
Rep. Marc Rhoades, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, conceded a streak of distrust before visiting with KU officials.
“I don’t know the regents,” said Rhoades, a Newton Republican. “I don’t necessarily trust somebody that I don’t know. Why would I?”
He said campus bosses should understand that lawmakers want a return on investment.
“I don’t think anybody,” he said, “has held them accountable to do that.”
Dan Hurley, state relations director for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said it is appropriate for state lawmakers to understand what taxpayers are getting for their money.
“I trust and am fully confident that in every state the return on investment is significant,” he said. “This will be an opportunity to show the good stewardship that public institutions have been displaying.”
University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said public higher education is no more under the microscope in Kansas than any place else in the country. But she recognized the reality of state money woes.
“I don’t believe it’s primarily because of quality,” she said. “It’s because of the strains on budgets.”