House majority leader unsure of higher education request’s feasibility
By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — Kansas college students could soon benefit from a continued effort to minimize rising college tuition, pending approval on a provision in the governor’s budget.
In her budget, Gov. Laura Kelly included a request from the Kansas Board of Regents to pay $45.7 million to universities so that the institutions can freeze tuition for students. The proposal comes after years of debate and concern over rising college costs and attempts from lawmakers and the board to slow or stop them.
Some post-secondary institutions under the board of regents are already freezing tuition. At the University of Kansas, tuition has stayed steady for three straight years, and the other five KBOR universities have maintained tuition two out of the past three years.
“Student debt is a big issue for a lot of families, and the college going rate is going down in Kansas as well as nationally,” said Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman for KBOR. “The challenge becomes, as we are looking at economic development opportunities in the state of Kansas, we need to have the talent pool so that we’re able to attract visitors to the state. Being able to keep tuition flat creates an opportunity for affordability for a diverse population throughout the state of Kansas.”
Costs for students and their families have risen dramatically over the past decade and a half. At Kansas State University, tuition and academic fees per semester for a full-time undergraduate student from Kansas have risen 80% to more than $5,200. A similar student at KU would pay $5,600, an increase of 82% from 15 years ago.
Harrison-Lee feared without the infusion of funds from the state, universities would no longer be able to keep tuition flat. At a time when college attendance is decreasing, raising tuition could push enrollment down further, she said.
In her State of the State address Tuesday, Kelly also noted the fiscal impact of the pandemic as a reason to approve the tuition freeze effort. With an estimated budget surplus of $2.9 billion, now is a good a time as any to invest in higher education, she said.
“This virus took something from our students,” Kelly said. “And we are going to give them something back. Again, it’s a huge win for our young people and for all working Kansans.”
In the presentation of the budget to a joint committee of House and Senate members, Adam Proffitt, the governor’s budget director, credited recent increases in post-secondary funding with allowing state universities to keep tuition steady.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, was hesitant to commit to anything that could cost the state additional money.
“There’s a lot of money spent here,” Hawkins said. We have $3 billion, and by the time you figure everything out, there’s a lot less.”
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, was more optimistic about a proposal he said would surely benefit Kansas families.
“Universities will have adequate funds for their operations, and the freeze will reduce the burden on students and their families, hopefully encouraging more students to attend college,” Hawk said.
In addition to the tuition freeze, the governor is proposing an allotment of $25 million for the need-based Kansas Access Partnership Grant, which helps families with the cost of college. The investments would represent the largest year-over-year increase in program history.
The budget proposal also includes additional funds for two-year technical schools and cybersecurity.
“The governor’s budget proposal includes a historic investment in higher education, continuing her promise to be the education governor,” said Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat. “I look forward to the Legislature supporting her proposal and providing our universities with the resources to train the workforce of tomorrow, keep tuition flat and to recruit and retain the brightest faculty, staff, and students.”