Government & Politics

‘Bite my tongue and bear it’: University students shoulder costs Kansas used to carry

Mallory Cortez works as a pharmacy technician and sells her plasma to help earn enough money for college.
Mallory Cortez works as a pharmacy technician and sells her plasma to help earn enough money for college. The Wichita Eagle

Mallory Cortez understands her dream of becoming an OB-GYN won’t come cheap.

But the 22-year-old Wichita State University freshman wasn’t prepared for all the fees, book charges and other expenses that piled up along the way. Between classes, Cortez works as a pharmacy technician and donates her plasma for extra cash.

It’s a paycheck-to-paycheck life.

“I was nervous. I was really worried my future and whole livelihood of my career would be jeopardized by my financial standing,” Cortez said of the sticker shock she encountered when she started college last year.

Students and parents have worried about the cost of college for years, but those concerns are being felt strongly right now in Kansas after years of stagnant state funding for higher education. Gov. Laura Kelly wants to increase funding and lawmakers have several ideas for reducing costs, from tax exemptions to scholarship incentives.

Still, students now provide much more funding for Kansas universities than the state does. It’s a situation that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Less than a decade ago, the opposite was true.

Students paid $719 million in university tuition in fiscal year 2017, according to the Kansas Board of Regents. State funding to universities was $569 million.

By contrast, student university tuition was less than $475 million in 2009, while state funding to universities was nearly $675 million that year.

KBOR chart.JPG
This chart from the Kansas Board of Regents shows student and state funding for public universities in Kansas over the past decade. Kansas Board of Regents

Kelly wants to boost higher education funding by $9 million in her budget. That increase would take Kansas higher education funding back to 2017 levels following a cut that year. Funding is still well below 2009 levels.

Kelly has said the state needs to take a fiscally conservative approach to its budget and has no margin for error if a recession strikes. She is concentrating this year on K-12 school funding, Medicaid expansion and the foster care system.

Kelly’s plan to restore higher education funding to 2017 levels comes at a time of financial pressure for Kansas universities.

The University of Kansas has moved to reduce its spending by $20 million, a cut of about 6 percent. Kansas State University cut $15 million last year. And Wichita State University will ask students to approve a $6-per-credit hour fee hike to fund campus infrastructure a year after the university raised fees $95 per semester to build a new YMCA.

The Kansas Board of Regents governs the state’s universities. Its president and CEO, Blake Flanders, said Kelly’s funding proposal will help control the cost of education. It’s still well below the $50 million increase that the board is requesting. Lawmakers must approve any funding increase.

All across Kansas, higher education affordability is a top concern for parents and students, he said. In focus groups held by the regents in 2018, college costs repeatedly came up.

“What was surprising was not that affordability was an issue, but ... it was a runaway in terms of the number of times it was highlighted,” Flanders said.

More than half of the high school students in the groups listed cost as a major barrier to obtaining higher education. More than half of parents and teachers surveyed by the regents gave a similar answer.

The cost of tuition and fees ratcheted up sharply over the past decade. A Kansas undergraduate taking a full load of 15 credit hours at the University of Kansas or Wichita State University can expect to pay about 50 percent more today than in 2009.

KU tuition and required fees per semester rose from $3,706.85 in 2009 to $5,573.95 in 2019. At WSU, tuition and fees jumped from $2,733.50 to $4,135.48.

“In Wichita, one of our top exports is young educated talent,” said Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita. “When we saddle people with debt, they end up taking jobs with much higher salaries outside of Kansas for a chance to pay off that debt.”

Whipple wants to expand the type of transfer credits universities accept, enact a sales tax holiday for school supplies, provide a $500 tax credit for low-income students who earn Pell grants but still ending up owing tuition and create a tax credit as an incentive to people to contribute to the universities to establish need-based scholarships.

Students are also increasing pressure on universities and the state to act to help control costs. At KU, student government leaders approved a resolution in November to use freely accessibly educational materials whenever possible.

Traditional textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars for some courses. The College Board estimates that the average annual cost of books and supplies for a full-time undergraduate student is $1,240.

A bill before Kansas lawmakers would exempt student purchases of textbooks from sales tax. State officials predict it would cost Kansas roughly $10 million a year in tax revenue.

“I was in college a few years ago, and one semester I spent $55 alone on sales tax for books,” said Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who introduced the textbook sales tax bill. “As a broke college kid, $55 can go a long way.”

At the University of Kansas, a food pantry for students, faculty and staff was moved into the Kansas Union a few years ago — a central location on the Lawrence campus. Noah Ries, the student body president, said the pantry, which used to be off campus, has experienced more use since the move.

“It’s kind of bittersweet because that’s just a really heavy reminder of how bad the issue is,” Ries said.

In Wichita, Cortez often eats at her sister’s place and lives in an apartment she found through a family friend. That all helps keep down costs, but it’s still hard to save money.

When she needs a cash boost, Cortez donates plasma.

“Basically my plasma card is my gas card,” Cortez said.

Cortez, who moved from St. Louis, expects to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in debt as she completes her education. She sees no other way other than to “bite my tongue and bear it.”

“This, to me, is the only method to get where I really feel I belong as a medical professional,” Cortez said.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget would leave Kansas with $686 million in the bank next year, while expanding Medicaid, increasing school funding and hiring scores of workers to help fix the state’s troubled foster care system.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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