After years of dealing with state budget cuts or, at best, financial stagnation, leaders of the top universities in Missouri and Kansas seem to be settling into a new reality.
Those halcyon days of reliable public support are over, they say. And they’re probably not coming back.
In both states, income from students’ tuition now exceeds the amount of money the flagship universities receive from state legislatures. Missouri — a trendsetter in this unfortunate regard — crossed that bright line in 2004. Kansas reached it in 2008.
“It’s not a great policy,” Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz said this week. “But I think it’s a trend that’s not going to reverse itself.”
Tim Wolfe, the new president of the University of Missouri system, has reached the same conclusion. “The appetite for raising taxes is just not there for the state of Missouri,” he said.
The “key to success,” Wolfe said, is finding new sources of revenue.
And that leads to challenges and dilemmas.
All of the Kansas Regents universities have asked for and received tuition increases for next year. And many public universities in Missouri are also seeking tuition boosts. But there is an increasing awareness that students and families can’t be tapped for much more.
The schools are putting some of their brainpower to use finding efficiencies. Bernadette Gray-Little, the KU chancellor, wrote recently in a Kansas City Star op-ed piece that the university is “in the midst of a comprehensive project to reduce administration costs and reinvest the savings in teaching and research.”
Other universities, especially in mercenary Missouri, have been cost-cutting for years, even as mandatory expenses, especially health care, continue to climb.
MU, K-State, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City are all in the planning, early or public phases of major fundraising campaigns. K-State’s fundraising topped $100 million for the first time a year ago, and increased to $121 million this year, Schulz said.
Like every other research university, the schools are all competing vigorously for federal and private research dollars.
MU is ramping up recruitment of out-of-state students. A wider applicant pool makes for a more talented student body and enhances prestige, Wolfe said. Out-of-state enrollment at the flagship Columbia campus is about 25 percent and climbing.
All of these measures are necessary and good, up to a point. But there is a danger in absolving state governments too easily of their responsibilities for funding their public colleges and universities.
Research grants and generous donations come with specific agendas and conditions, which may or may not mesh with the strategic needs of a state and its citizens.
Out-of-state students pay more in tuition and may improve a university’s standing, but the lust for the dollars and prestige they bring can become a school’s dominant focus.
The bottom line is this: States that are unwilling to invest a fair share of public money in their colleges and universities may see those schools become less “public” in the sense of serving the common good.
It’s good that university leaders are being cost-conscious and realistic.
But none of us should let the states’ lawmakers and taxpayers off the hook too easily.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.