OP-ED: Don’t blame state government for high tuition

Lines of desks make their way to the center of the House of Representatives room in the west end of the Kansas State Capitol on June 9, 2016. (Archive photo by Evert Nelson | Collegian Media Group)

This opinion-editorial was written by Benjamin Ristow, a junior in history and membership coordinator for the College Republicans at Kansas State. If you would like to write an op-ed with the Collegian, send us an email at opinion@kstatecollegian.com to get started.

Tuition is expensive. We all pay more for tuition than we did before. This happens every year. The reason for our drastically increased tuition costs is that the state government is failing to give enough in appropriations funding. Right?

That seems to be what we have all been told repeatedly. I wondered what truth there was to this idea, so I took a look at the numbers.

First, some terms. State appropriations are monies that the state sets aside to assist the mission of the university. Tuition-based funding is funding that the university receives by charging students fees for school. Other sources of funding include hospital and diagnostic fees, federal land-grant funds, auxiliary enterprises, local agencies, gifts, grants, research contracts and some miscellaneous sources.

Between Fiscal Year (FY) 2001-2002 and FY 2016-2017, state appropriations remained mostly stable, increasing at 0.173 percent each year. In dollar amounts, that’s an average increase of $146,000 each year.

In contrast, tuition-based funding has gone steadily up. It has increased by an average of 10.5 percent each year. In dollars, that’s an average $12 million more each year.

K-State funding from sources other than state appropriations and tuition, increased by an average of 4 percent, or $13 million per year.

So, state appropriations, tuition, and other sources of funding all enjoyed an average year-to-year increase, and consequently the university budget enjoyed an average year-to-year increase. Specifically, the budget increased by about 4 percent or around $25 million per year.

Admittedly, state appropriations appear rather stagnant in comparison to the rest. They hovered around $167 million each year while total funding went from $486 million in 2002 to $868 million in 2017. From this, it seems that the justification for sharp tuition increases makes some sense. But how much should tuition increase in response to this stagnation?

The number of fall-enrolled students went up by an average of 0.41 percent each year, only about 90 students per year. The number of full-time staff increased by only 0.44 percent, or 23 staff members each year.

The number of students, full-time staff members and state appropriation funding all remained mostly stable with a slight upward trend. At the same time, other funding sources increased at a steady rate.

The university needs a certain amount of growth, but did tuition funding really need to increase over 10 percent each year? In 2002, the university received $54 million from tuition funding. Divided by the 22,396 enrolled students, that’s an average of $2,437 per student.

In 2017, the university received $240 million from tuition funding. Divided by the 23,779 enrolled students that’s an average of $10,101 per student. From $2,400 per student to $10,100 in the course of just 15 years. Was this massive increase necessary?

What if tuition funding per student had remained steady, at around the 2002 mark of $2,437.94 per student? Instead of the 10.5 percent increase that actually occurred, tuition funding would have increased an average of only 0.41 percent each year, matching the increase in number of students. What kind of impact would this have had on total university funding?

Instead of increasing an average 4.1 percent each year, total funding and budget would have increased an average of 3.5 percent each year. Would a difference of 0.6 percent in funding and budget increases have prevented the continued operation of the university?

It seems that the university should have been able to survive just fine on a 3.5 percent annual growth in funding. Can we really blame the rise of tuition on the idea that the state government just wasn’t giving enough for the university to get by?

I would argue that the blame for increased tuition should instead be divided between two sources: that of the university and how they choose to spend money, and also how government subsidization impacts cost.

To the first issue, anyone can see that universities in general suffer from a certain amount of bloat. As just one example, look at the way salaries are doled out. While many hardworking instructors earn less than they deserve, top administrators enjoy hefty six-figure salaries. In 2017, instructors made an average of $41,365 each, assistant professors $80,510 each, associate professors $94,073 each and professors $127,171 each. The vice provosts, vice presidents, the provost and the president made an average of $284,307 each.

For a school focused on research and education, it seems that we could be paying those who teach and do research a little more and those who administrate a little less. Note that this isn’t just a K-State issue. Although the university president’s salary is larger than the salary of the President of the United States’, it is dwarfed by the salaries of university presidents elsewhere.

For example, Kirk Schulz left a $467,000 salary at K-State for a $625,000 salary at Washington State, another similarly sized land-grant university. Perhaps the university can’t risk lowering administrative salaries without losing staff to other schools, but something just doesn’t seem right about such a distribution of money within a non-profit.

In addition, despite complaints about how the state spends money, the governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general of Kansas together make an average salary of $84,908 each, over three times less than the top administrators at K-State.

There are actually 745 full-time staff at K-State who made more than the governor of Kansas’ salary, including the assistant to the president, whose job includes asking the state for more money. Maybe the school could afford to take a lesson from the state and spend money a little more wisely.

But spending practices alone are only part of the picture. I contend that the main culprit for ever higher tuition costs is government subsidization. Ironically, in an effort to make college more affordable to students, the federal government has caused tuition to be falsely inflated. The government awards and loans out monies for school. In the case of loans, the students must then pay off the debt later, usually with interest.

At face value, this seems like a noble enough goal. College costs money. Some prospective students simply cannot afford that amount. The government helps by paying in the students’ place. Easy fix, right?

But this model quickly falls apart. Pretend that a college charges $50 for a class. Many people can afford this, but some cannot. The government steps in to help those who cannot. Now more people are taking the class. Most of them are paying for themselves, but the government is paying for some.

This continues for a while, but then the college realizes that thanks to the government assistance and thus the increased demand for the class, they can raise the cost of the class to $75. Still, most people can afford the class, but a few more cannot. The government steps in to help these people as well and offers slightly more help than before to match the increased cost of the class. And so, the cycle continues.

Demand for the class remains high, as more and more people become able to take the class thanks to government assistance. In an effort to continue making sure as many people can take the class as possible, the government will continue to increase its assistance.

At a certain point, the cost of the class becomes high enough that many don’t want to pay the bill, but since everyone else is taking the class, they feel pressured to attend as well. Now another problem arises.

Many of these people have enough of their own money to not qualify for the free government subsidies, but instead have to rely on more loans. And so, what started as a gesture of kindness by the government to help as many people as possible attend college becomes a monstrosity which costs more and more each year.

The class at this point costs too much for the government to stop offering assistance. If they did, far too many people would be left unable to attend. At the same time, the college cannot simply drop the cost of the class – at this point, the college is relying on the revenue this class brings.

Instead, the behemoth will continue to grow as neither government nor college budges. Although not mentioned in this example, it’s worth noting that the burden of the ever-expanding government subsidies must be borne by the taxpayers.

The parallel to tuition costs is obvious. The university likes the money that increased tuition brings in, and they know that students will continue to pay exuberant prices, either out of pocket or by relying on loans, because in this day and age, everyone needs a degree.

Could the university continue to operate at a marginally lower rate of growth with a more level rate of tuition funding?

Probably, but why would they? Why cut or reprioritize spending in certain areas when the university can simply point a finger at the state government and call it their fault for not giving the university enough money. Could the state government be a little more generous with their appropriations? It seems likely, but this is not an adequate excuse for the excessive rate-of-tuition increase.

I am not an expert or a genius, but I have enough common sense to look at the data and say that the lines we are being fed about tuition increases do not hold up under scrutiny. Make no mistake, tuition increases are not just an issue at K-State. This is an issue at almost every public university in the country.

The universities know that they can get away with raising tuition, so they do it time and time again, all the while enjoying the increased money they have to spend. I am not an economist, a school administrator or a politician, but I can see that something needs to change.

We will probably never return to the lower tuition rates that students used to enjoy, but if the federal government stops enabling university practices and if universities learn to manage their spending and avoid the temptation of raising costs, we might be able to mitigate the sharp increase we currently see.

I hope that they do, but in the meantime, let’s be honest about who we blame for our tuition.

Benjamin Ristow is a junior in history and membership coordinator for the College Republicans at Kansas State. The views and opinions expressed in this opinion-editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.