Last month the Kansas Board of Regents increased tuition for the coming school year at the state’s six universities. At KU, the state’s senior Regent institution, tuition for students claiming Kansas residence will increase $137 to $5,046 – per semester.
The news brought mild astonishment among some old alums. A half-century ago an incoming KU senior would sign up at Strong Hall and write a tuition check for $385 (roughly $2,850 in today’s money). In 1968 this matched the national average tuition for public four-year institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Tuition stayed relatively low for some time. Presidents and the Congress supported enhanced state and local pro-grams, including more aid to local schools, colleges and universities. (Off the books, we were also printing money to finance a war in Vietnam, a fuse box for monumental inflation.)
College then was a financial load, but it did not bring the crushing debt that now cripples lives and strangles personal finances. Nor did it ruin dreams. Many of today’s students seek only the education – or career – they can afford, not the one they had dreamed of.
In-state tuition at state universities is up an average two percent, excepting K-State, which is up one percent. The rates (non-resident tuition in parentheses):
KU, $5,046 ($13,151); K-State, $4687 (12,440); Wichita State, $3,354 ($7,945); Emporia State, $2,577 ($9,535); Pittsburgh State, $2,847 ($8,519); Fort Hays State, $1,998 ($7,033).
Double these for a year. Then add the average costs, according to the Education Department, for room and board ($11,800), books and supplies ($1,100) and other expenses ($3,100), including transportation, or sudden unexpected costs.
The Kansas Regents approved tuition increases because they had little choice. State funding for universities was $657 million ten years ago. Now it is $584 million, down $73 million.
The Brownback-Colyer years were savage ones for education in Kansas. The governor and his obedient Republicans cut taxes for the high brackets, then slashed at government, raided agencies and institutions of their money and subdued their talent or drove it away. As red ink flowed at Topeka and the wealthy enjoyed tax breaks in the hinterlands, our schools withered, and students were left to pay the difference, or pack up and leave. Professors, too.
Recent elections have infused the legislature with enough sensible souls to grind against the backward march. We have begun to recover revenues by reinstating an equitable income tax, the one we once had. Some accounts are coming slowly into balance.
Some things lost will take years if not generations to replace. The teachers who fled disparagement and disappointment; staff that could work no more for less; administrators who could watch no longer as institutions of achievement and stature were ground away, as colleagues left for places that would embrace learning, not stifle it.
Tuition increases are signs of a larger problem. They signal a place that may abandon efforts to get in touch with civilization, a legislature that dismisses beauty, or views experimenting with ideas as a needless frill. A place of sagging education is a place that fails to give the life of everyday a certain dignity and purpose.
Is that how we see Kansas?
If not, we must continue the recovery, rebuild from the ash heaps of Brownback-Colyer and Kris Kobach. Elections are August 7 and in November. Begin at the ballot box. The mission is to restore Kansas to its former stature, a place that offers the truest education to the next generations, and not at a crippling personal cost.
A few candidates out there are willing to lead the way. Find them, send them or return them to Topeka.