Public universities were established in the 1800s based on the premise that, because they provide benefits to society, they would be financially supported by states. The result was the development of an American higher education system that became the envy of the world and played a tremendous role in developing our democracy and advancing our quality of life.
But over the past 20 years, state support for higher education has decreased. While most Americans still view higher education as important, they are less willing to spend money — or have their elected officials spend money — to support the universities that educate most of the nation’s students and create a more prosperous society. Though universities continue to seek ways to become more efficient, the erosion of state support has inevitably forced many schools to scale back their mission or, in many cases, to increase tuition.
Once embraced as a collective good, a public higher education is increasingly viewed — and paid for — as a private one. This has serious implications for students and families, and also for our economy and society, neither of which can prosper without the unique public benefits universities provide.
Certainly, there is variability amid the overall trend of disinvestment. States like Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Arizona are currently considering or implementing enormous — some would say catastrophic — disinvestments in their public universities. Meanwhile, a handful of states are slowly beginning to restore cuts implemented during the Great Recession. And in the middle are a large number of states that have either frozen support or continue to chip away at it.
Here in Kansas, our state has incrementally but consistently disinvested in higher education to the point that it is now significantly challenging the University of Kansas’ ability to serve Kansans and society. When adjusted for inflation, per-student state support for KU has declined nearly 40 percent over the past 15 years. Thus, KU students now pay the majority of the cost of their education.
The Kansas Legislature will soon begin finalizing next year’s budget. Currently, the budget conference committee is considering a bill that has no new cuts but does include a tuition freeze at all Regents universities. This was a curious move by legislators, as it does nothing to address the state’s revenue shortfall, and because KU remains very affordable compared to neighboring state universities and aspirational peer universities.
While we share legislators’ focus on affordability, there are serious implications for freezing tuition, most notably that it prevents us from being able to keep up with inflation, let alone to embark on new initiatives to benefit Kansas. In the meantime, we will continue working with legislators to help them see the benefits KU provides to our state and society. And the core of that message will always be the remarkable work that you, our faculty and staff, are doing.
Whether you are educating students, providing outreach to underserved communities, or discovering the next product or idea that benefits our world, you are the reason the University of Kansas remains — and should always be treated as — a public good.