(The following remarks were delivered at the Kansas Economic Policy Conference on October 13, 2016, in the Big 12 Room in the Kansas Union.)
Good morning! Welcome to the annual Kansas Economic Policy Conference here at the University of Kansas.
I'm happy to see so many of you here on campus, and I want to thank our online participants, especially those from western Kansas. You all work on the most important issues facing our state — from the economy and education to agriculture and health. I'm proud that the university can host these vital conversations.
In recent decades, Kansas has undergone a demographic shift — perhaps most notably, the majority of our population no longer lives in rural areas. Moreover, in recent years, policy decisions that focus on fiscal austerity and reduced taxation have had a major impact on how state government, K-12 and higher education in Kansas function. These are important trends, certainly worthy of discussion.
The theme of this year’s conference – “Policy Implications Now and in the Future” – is especially intriguing to me. Just as we’re all living with decisions of our predecessors, policy decisions we make today can have enormous economic implications for future generations.
Here in Kansas, we often hear the charge we have been “kicking the can down the road,” and that we've chosen short-term fixes to address challenges. Creative maneuvers such as deferring KPERS contributions, delaying a K-12 payment, or moving money from the highway fund, for example, might temporarily get you to the next budget cycle. However, these are short-term fixes to long-term or structural problems.
We need to take the long view when facing complex policy and economic challenges. A generation ago, students in many states were able to attend public universities that were funded by the state upward of 50%. Today, state funding accounts for less than 20% KU's Lawrence campus budget. Nationally, Association of American Universities members on average have seen state appropriations drop from 31% in 2001 to 16% in 2013. As public universities are forced to rely more and more on tuition, one likely consequence is that low-income and even middle-class families will become priced out and unable to send their children to college. Given the lifetime value of a college degree to income, health and quality of life as well as to our communities and economy — we need more rather than fewer college-educated citizens.
Researchers at KU and elsewhere are exploring ways to address the effects of these policies on families in our communities. Professor of Economics Donna Ginther's work is nationally recognized on how math intervention programs in elementary school could steer more students to STEM fields and careers — where we have a shortage. The KU Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion, has found that children with savings accounts in their name were nearly seven times more likely to attend college and were better prepared to deal with debt. I am proud of this research and their solutions.
However, it's also critical that we examine the underlying causes and long-term influence of policy decisions. That’s why I am grateful to have such a diverse and interdisciplinary group here today to have this discussion about some of the most complex problems facing our state.
For those of you visiting KU today from out of town, I hope you find time to explore campus and see first-hand the ongoing transformation of our university. There is the physical transformation — including our new EEEC, Self and Oswald Halls, our renovated spencer Museum … and perhaps most notably our Central District redevelopment, which will fundamentally change the face of education and research at KU. I would also note that just a few weeks ago, we learned our freshman class grew for the fifth straight year and was the most academically talented class in KU history. These students choose KU because of the incredible academics and experiences we offer, including the opportunity to work alongside incredible scholars and policy leaders like you.
I'm thankful all of you could be here today. Your work is crucial to our state and our university. Enjoy the conference.