Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to hold tuition flat at Kansas universities by increasing funding nearly $50 million — revealed during her State of the State address this week — delighted students and higher education leaders.
But her plan remains just that for now, subject to change by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The Democratic governor, in a tough re-election campaign this year, cast the tuition freeze as a break for students amid the uncertainties and anxieties caused by the pandemic. Higher education officials signaled it would likely apply to undergraduate and graduate students, and both Kansas residents and non-residents.
“This virus took something from our students. And, we are going to give them something back,” Kelly said. “Again, it’s a huge win for our young people and for all working Kansans.”
Top Republicans were less enthusiastic in interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday, neither ruling out nor endorsing the idea.
“We’ll have discussions with the Kansas Board of Regents,” Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House budget committee.
He added that in some past years, the regents, who govern the state’s universities, had raised tuition even after receiving additional state funding.
Higher education leaders are supportive of Kelly’s plan, however, hopeful that holding tuition flat will halt falling enrollment, a problem that’s bedeviled the state for several years. They’re betting no increases will attract students by soothing fears of mounting loan debt.
Over the past five years, university full-time equivalent enrollment has declined 8.6%, with sharp declines at some schools. The student count at Pittsburg State University fell more than 20% during that period. Enrollment at the University of Kansas is down 5% since 2016.
The University of Kansas has already had flat in-state tuition for the past three years. In-state tuition at Kansas State University, Wichita State University and every other public university hasn’t risen in at least two of the past three years.
“KU is obviously not the least expensive school to go to especially for students who come from low-income backgrounds,” University of Kansas Student Body President Niya McAdoo said. “Affordability is a really big thing for these students.”
Kelly’s plan hinges on increasing funding to state universities by $45.7 million. The amount matches what the Board of Regents had requested this fall in order to freeze tuition for another year, after previously holding rates for Kansas residents flat during the past three years at most schools.
The increase would return university funding to pre-pandemic levels. Universities saw a base 2.5% budget cut in the Legislature’s approved budget last year.
Kelly’s plan also includes $25 million for a grant to help Kansas families with the cost of college. The funding must be matched dollar-for-dollar with private resources.
Adam Proffitt, Kelly’s budget director, told reporters that the budget proposal includes a provision requiring the Board of Regents to hold tuition rates flat next year. Typically, the Regents set rates themselves.
Tuition’s ‘significant challenges’
Regent Cheryl Harrison-Lee, who chairs the board, welcomed the plan.
“The cost of tuition has created significant challenges for certain segments of our population and what we’re seeing in our enrollment there are certain segments of the state of Kansas that we have not been able to reach and we think this is an opportunity to reach those that traditionally have not been served,” Harrison-Lee said.
At KU, 15 credit hours (a typical semester load) of in-state tuition and fees costs $5,582.95; at K-State, $5,209.98; and $4,400.01 at Wichita State University. The other three universities all cost less than $4,000 a semester.
KU’s three years of flat tuition may be helping stabilize enrollment. While the university has seen an overall drop of 5% over five years, last year’s drop was only 0.3% – a loss of fewer than 70 students.
“We appreciate that Governor Kelly has proposed a number of items that would benefit higher education and the Kansas students and families we serve. In particular, we support her proposal to restore higher education base funding to pre-pandemic levels so that KU can freeze tuition for a fourth straight year,” KU Chancellor Doug Girod said in a statement.
Kansas ranks in the middle of the pack in tuition and fees, according to data compiled by College Board. For the 2021-2022 school year, 18 states had lower average tuition and fees at their four-year public colleges. Of Kansas’s neighbors, Nebraska and Oklahoma cost less.
While students have welcomed flat tuition, the regents last year also held down student fee increases, which are driven by student governments. Fees help fund numerous campus services, from health care to student clubs.
After allowing students to raise fees in prior years, the regents in June rejected a roughly $31 per student per semester increase at the University of Kansas, a $4 hike at Wichita State University and $8 at Pittsburg State University.
Per-semester undergraduate fees run anywhere from $465.48 at K-State to $978.66 at WSU.
“The biggest message we got out of last year’s conversation of increasing fees … was to discuss it earlier with the Board of Regents,” said Hammad Hussain, treasurer of the KU Student Senate. KU’s required fees are $536.95.
Hussain said there’s a plan to coordinate with higher education leaders about fees in the future, which will be discussed this spring. Harrison-Lee said the regents haven’t addressed fees this year, but said the board last year saw fees as part of the overall cost of college.
“I would anticipate we would be taking a hard look at fees as well this year and trying to make sure we don’t have unintended consequences with fee increases,” Harrison-Lee said.
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting
This story was originally published January 13, 2022 5:00 AM.