Guest Commentary

Cuts to higher education in Kansas could hurt national security

Michael E. Flynn, associate professor of political science at Kansas State University
Michael E. Flynn, associate professor of political science at Kansas State University

Over the past 10 years, state funding for higher education in Kansas has been cut dramatically. Between 2010 and 2019, Kansas State University alone has seen real cuts of $50 million dollars in state assistance. These cuts have far-reaching effects, and negatively impact one particular area of concern: national defense.

From 2015–2019, K-State has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to support over 60 separate research projects and programs across several departments, including chemistry, biology, chemical engineering, political science, computer science, plant pathology and others. These research projects have numerous practical implications far beyond campus.

Kansas is well positioned to capitalize on its comparative advantage in this area, but it requires state support. Specifically, the state should focus its efforts on increasing financial assistance to graduate and undergraduate students. Increasing funding for students will pay dividends with respect to the sorts of work relevant to defense that university faculty are already engaged in.

Graduate students often work closely with faculty on their research. And when the U.S. Army started its Regionally Aligned Forces initiative, our graduate students provided valuable assistance to military personnel. However, graduate stipends at K-State are just not competitive. In my own field, students make only $14,000–$16,000 per year. They lack funds for travel to professional development events and are often required to pay taxes on tuition waivers. This is simply not an attractive situation when students consider other states and universities.

Better graduate student pay would help departments to be more competitive in recruitment and would create a stronger pool of research and teaching assistants from which faculty can draw. Many of these students continue the kind of defense-related work they begin during their graduate training.

Increasing the number of graduate student prospects could help university departments provide better educational experiences for undergraduate students, particularly where it facilitates smaller class sizes and more classroom engagement. Attracting more talented graduate students could also benefit the private sector, as many may choose to stay in the state after graduation.

Kansas universities produce a large number of undergraduate students interested in national service. Faculty members regularly field questions from students interested in careers in the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and more. Many of these students are incredibly talented. One of our undergraduates recently won a prestigious and nationally competitive Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship, which provides support for graduate school education for students pursuing careers in the U.S. Foreign Service.

As the state’s financial support has fallen, tuition has increased to make up the difference. Many students are responding to this burden by moving away from fields that directly relate to foreign and defense policy. Instead they’re choosing fields they believe will yield a higher salary, even if they find the work less interesting and rewarding. Increasing state support could help incentivize students to explore different courses and to gain exposure to different subject and research fields.

Other students are moving to community colleges and distance learning programs. While those alternative programs meet an important need, they don’t provide students with the exposure to defense-related research that they would find at larger universities.

Kansas produces some of the brightest and hardest working students with whom I have ever worked. Many of them go on to represent the United States on the world stage. Through its universities, Kansas stands to have a major impact on foreign policy and defense-related research. External grants and gifts help, but they are often temporary or limited in their applications, and they are no substitute for a strong and consistent foundation, which the state is instrumental in providing. The state should provide Kansas’ universities support commensurate with their potential.

Michael E. Flynn is an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University. He lives in Manhattan, Kansas.