Head to head: Rising tuition isn’t all Topeka’s fault

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There are only a handful of annual traditions that are almost universally disliked by K-State students; spring finals week, Late Night at the Phog and the morning after Fake Patty’s Day come to mind.

In recent years, however, the approval of a new university budget can be added to the list. For decades now, Kansas universities have increased tuition on a yearly basis. In fact, since 1989, the cost of a semester at K-State has more than quintupled.

With the possible exception of some loan agencies, no one likes these increases, least of all the students who have to bear the extra expense. Naturally, the student body looks for someone to blame. In conversations around campus, on social media and in statements from student government leaders, theories and scapegoats are abound. Some suggest cutting back on student services and amenities. Others decry the comfortable salaries paid to university administrators.

The most common complaints, however, are directed at the state legislature and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

“Here we go again,” students have said, rolling their eyes. “Remember this the next time elections come around, and vote for representatives that recognize the importance of higher education.”

There’s no denying that the legislature has significantly cut funding to higher education, most recently in 2013 when they decided to decrease funding by about $44 million over two years. While this was a convenient excuse for members of the Board of Regents when another round of tuition increases came, it’s hard to imagine that stable funding would have prevented rates from rising.

In fact, Regent Kenny Wilk was quoted in a June press release as saying that cuts “forced (the board) to increase tuition far more than what (they) would have otherwise done.” Essentially, he admitted that tuition would still have increased, albeit not as dramatically, even if state funding remained stable.

Past funding increases have proved powerless in slowing the growth of tuition rates. From 2004-08, when the legislature increased higher education funding by 23 percent, to the tune of more than $150 million, Kansas State’s tuition still rose by 45 percent.

Furthermore, although the percentage of higher education funds provided by the state has dropped significantly over the past few decades, the dollar amounts funded are much higher. In an Aug. 6 article, Regent Robba Moran told the Wichita Eagle that the state provided about 75 percent of total funding in the 1970s and 1980s, compared to just 22 percent today. But university operating budgets in those days were significantly smaller. In 1989, the most distant year available in K-State’s records, tuition was roughly $730 per semester for a full-time, in-state student. Today, it’s nearly $4,300. If we simplify state funding to the cost of one student’s tuition, the 75 percent tab in 1989 would be about $548. The 22 percent for today’s rate? More than $940.

Legislators who supported the cuts may be on to something when they suggest that institutions can do more to keep their operating expenses manageable, and pass these savings on to students. From sweeping initiatives like the K-State 2025 plan to seemingly minor groundskeeping decisions, like the additional stretch of sidewalk recently installed south of Hale Library, a university spends a great deal of money. If administrators truly wanted to decrease tuition without relying on state funding, they’d have to make some tough decisions that would likely decrease the quality of life and education its students enjoy.

The bottom line is, K-State is a business and students are customers. Customers are entitled to shop around for the best value on a product; in this case, an education. More affordable education opportunities abound; online degree programs, community colleges and smaller state schools like Pittsburg State and Emporia State all compete with K-State for customers. Because K-State offers a greater variety and higher quality of academic opportunities, programs and services, they attract more students than their in-state competitors, with the exception of the slightly more expensive University of Kansas. Raising the bar on this standard of education, as K-State has made clear is their goal, will require more money. That capital has to come from somewhere; why should the tab be thrown to taxpayers, instead of the people benefitting directly from the service?

State funding of higher education is a complex matter. No matter how much or how little the state contributes to universities, someone will always be unhappy. But to place the blame for rising education costs squarely on senators and representatives is inaccurate and unfair. Sure, paying more tuition each year is a pain, but rather than blindly pointing fingers at the state government, take a closer look at how the university spends its money.

If you feel your money is being used appropriately and you’re receiving an adequate value, fantastic; if not, consider taking your business elsewhere.

Mike Stanton is a junior in mass communications. Please send comments to [email protected].

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