Give Kansas college students a break: Freeze tuition at state universities for a year

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Kansas State University has asked the Board of Regents to raise its tuition by 3.1% — $291 a year for a full-time undergraduate. The University of Kansas and Wichita State have asked for modest tuition hikes of 1% each.

The condition of higher education in Kansas, and across the nation, is fragile. Under normal circumstances, we might recommend approval of these relatively modest tuition hikes (Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State have asked for no increase; Emporia State wants an additional 2.5%).

But these are not normal times for students, who have been asked for years to make up for shortfalls in state funding. As a result, thousands of students have had to bear additional costs for tuition and student loan interest to overcome the unfortunate stinginess of state lawmakers.

That’s why the Board of Regents should freeze tuition at its universities for one year. It’s time for Kansas students to get a break.

The last two decades have cost college students (and in some cases, their parents) enormously. In 1999, typical in-state tuition and fees cost $2,518 a year at KU, according to figures compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. By 2018, tuition and fees cost $11,148 a year. That’s more than a four-fold increase.

Inflation rose 51% over the same period.

Other schools imposed similar increases. Kansas State went from $2,592 to $10,263. Wichita State University charged $2,573 in 1999 and $8,271 in 2018. The higher costs don’t include the price tag for room and board, which has also gone up.

Officials at the universities say they’re doing their best to control costs. “We’re all pretty good at belt-tightening. We’re kind of running out of belt at this point,” KU Chancellor Douglas Girod told the Associated Press.

Tuition has gone up, officials say, because the state has cut funding for their institutions. They’re largely correct.

In 2009, Topeka spent $657 million on general state funding for the six regents universities. In 2019, lawmakers spent $587 million, a $70 million reduction. The damage from the Sam Brownback years is evident: Ill-advised tax cuts ravaged state spending, and the universities were particularly hard-hit.

But students made up the difference. Tuition revenues have risen from $468 million in 2009 to $728 million this year, a $260 million increase. Students are doing what lawmakers won’t.

Legislators began to rectify this sorry record during their last session, when they approved an additional $33 million for higher education. Topeka now seems to understand that a healthy university system is essential for a growing, thriving state.

But at least some legislators, and Gov. Laura Kelly, believe the $33 million was aimed in part at alleviating the tuition crunch. “We are pricing kids, families out of our higher education system,” the governor said. She suggested tuition should be cut, not increased.

Some members of the Board of Regents have expressed similar concerns. Their final decision is expected in June.

This should be an easy call. Freeze tuition for one year so that students get a break. Then insist the Legislature honor that good-faith decision by spending more on the state’s schools next year, and beyond.