There is a debate taking place regarding the future of public universities and the role they play in our society. This debate is taking place across our nation, and is most visible when it comes time for legislators and governors to pass state budgets.
Budgets are more than tables of numbers detailing revenues and expenses. They reflect values and priorities. They are the ultimate example of “putting your money where your mouth is.”
Public, flagship universities were founded during the 1800s on the understanding that the participation of enlightened citizens is a hallmark of a democracy. Because society gains engaged citizens who contribute to the vitality and prosperity of their communities, states subsidize the education of their residents. As a result, America’s higher education system became the envy of the world.
Over the past two decades or so, that state support has eroded. In many states, students and families at public universities now pay the majority of the cost of their education. This is the case at the University of Kansas. Adjusted for inflation, our state support per student has declined by almost 40 percent over the past 15 years. Responding to that decline with cuts alone would have meant KU could no longer fulfill its responsibilities to the people and communities of Kansas.
The benefits universities provide to our society — educated leaders, healthier communities, discoveries that change lives and create jobs — have not waned. If anything, they’ve grown. But the cost is increasingly being borne by students, and not by the society also receiving those benefits.
No one who is committed to giving students, regardless of income, the opportunity to further their education wants to raise the barrier higher by increasing tuition. That’s especially true for those of us who have experienced first-hand the power education has to improve lives. Yet the disinvestment in higher education that has taken place leaves universities with few options.
Of course, we are reducing costs and streamlining operations. And we are always adjusting our course offerings and degree programs to ensure we prepare students to succeed in their careers and their lives. This is part of our duty to be good stewards of the resources we’re entrusted with.
The governor has expressed his support for Kansas universities and the role we play in the vitality and economy of our state. And he has followed through by proposing a flat university operating budget, as well as funding for our Health Education Initiative, despite a large budget shortfall caused by last year’s tax bill.
The governor’s budget is being debated in the Legislature. And while some legislators have proposed cuts, we and our alumni advocates are actively engaged in discussions with those legislators and others regarding the value of public universities to the future of not just our students and states, but of our entire nation.