The rising costs
of learning more
First of two parts
The second semester of the academic year has begun, and with it the second act of a long-running drama: what happens after high school, and how to pay for it.
The courts and the Kansas Legislature have resolved for now the matter of local school finance, a state-local partnership that has held up – through occasional storms and revisions – for nearly 30 years. But the issue of post-secondary education looms like a gathering cloud bank, building its many callings and specialties, its diverse curricula, its ties to employment opportunity, and its soaring costs – and ultimately, student debt.
Roughly 74,000 students are enrolled in the state’s six universities and medical and veterinary schools; another 5,800 are enrolled in the state’s six area technical colleges; 42,000 are enrolled in 19 community colleges in Kansas. (In addition, nearly 12,000 high school students are enrolled in technical and college credit courses.)
But to narrow the focus, consider the state universities with a combined $3 billion in annual spending. Last year, about $805 million of that came from tuition. The state chipped in less than $600 million. (The rest is from, among other sources, federal programs, student fees, capital outlay.)
At Kansas University, total tuition last year was $320 million, more than twice the $136 million that came from the state operating budget. For at least a decade, state funding has dwindled while tuition continued to rise – a trend mirrored at the other schools.
Colleges and universities have been hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts in the past decade. They are hemorrhaging tenured faculty – $30 million here, $20 million there, every year at every school and soon enough the instructors begin to leave and things go stale.
Those tuition increases, averaging a couple of percent each year, begin to add up. The load on student debt becomes crushing.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that outstanding student debt in this country stood at $1.5 trillion in the third quarter of 2019, an increase of $20 billion over the previous quarter. Students and families, strapped for savings and with few scholarships and grants available, often have no other choice than student loans.
The reasons became apparent last spring at a meeting on the KU campus. Officials presented a chart of annual costs for KU students in the recent school year; they reflected the trouble at the state’s other universities:
– Tuition for Kansas residents, $10,182;
– (out-of-state, $26,393);
– Fees, $966 ( for student health, campus transportation subsidy, student recreation, and so forth);
– Housing, $11,262;
– Books, $1,076;
– Transportation, $1,892;
– “Personal” expenses, $1,188;
– Total for in-state students, $26,566;
– Total for non-residents, $42,777.
Costs were up nearly 40 percent since 2010. At that time, state legislators, dominated by Republicans and Gov. Sam Brownback, began to slash taxes and cut budgets. Higher education would get much less, and students would pay much more. Gov. Laura Kelly has since begun the effort to recover, but the gap between true costs and available resources (student and state) remains enormous.
The Board of Regents has approved tuition increases because they had little choice. State funding for universities was $657 million a decade ago. Now it is $590 million, down $67 million.
At one point in that Lawrence meeting came a question whether state legislators “acknowledge” the growing disparity between tuition and state funding, whether they seem inclined to reverse the trend.
The answer, from several KU officials and at least one Regent lobbyist, was yes, many legislators acknowledge the disparity. “In fact, they are proud of it.”
Many legislators, we were told, often boast about their cuts of aid to higher education; college is no longer necessary, they say, because trade schools are now the trend.
That may be. But we also need a system of education that still believes the Earth is round, that what is happening abroad is of great consequence in our lives, that character is still as precious, if not more, than specialized knowledge. Vision is more than something arrived at through a well-ground lens. The young student remains the most hopeful property that the republic boasts.
(Next: Training vs. thinking.)