Chief executives of Kansas' three major universities outlined Thursday challenges of reaching for academic excellence during an era marked by campus spending reductions, restraint on state taxpayer support and rising tuition rates.
Kansas State University President Richard Myers, University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod and Wichita State University interim President Andy Tompkins didn't sugar-coat for The Topeka Capital-Journal's editorial advisory board the consequence of failure to produce graduates for a technology-driven workplace and to advance innovative faculty research applicable in an evolving state economy.
"You can't sustain a quality institution that does Kansas proud, that makes us the kind of state you want to live in, that is thriving, that is viable, without investing in your higher education apparatus," Myers said.
He said the only way to create sustained economic wealth, not individually but as a society, was through innovation and education.
Girod said KU had responded to budget forces not unique to Kansas by reducing spending by $20 million and eliminating 60 faculty positions.
"It is painful, but it's reality," the chancellor said. "It was part of what we just had to do to adjust to our current environment."
That hit paled in comparison to $37 million withdraw from K-State's budget during the past five years. Myers said he would cleave off $10 million more next year.
The 2019 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly agreed to funnel $33 million more into Kansas' higher education system, which includes universities and technical colleges.
Lawmakers also urged the Kansas Board of Regents to hold the line on tuition increases in the upcoming school year. Kelly went so far as to recommend that officials lower tuition rates.
On Wednesday, officials at Fort Hays State University and Pittsburg State University said they wanted to hold tuition rates flat in 2019-2020. KU and Wichita State recommended increases of 1 percent each. Emporia State University came in with a 2.5 percent surge, while K-State requested a 3.1 percent boost in rates.
Girod said the danger of leaning more heavily on tuition revenue, as opposed to investments by state government through taxation, was reaching a point that made a university degree inaccessible. Pricing people out of college will have a ripple effect in Kansas, he said.
"Then you create this have-have not situation," Myers said. "If you have a lot of have nots that don't have the ability to get into the middle class, that's not where you want to be as a state."
Myers said revenue from tuition increases at K-State would be invested in student recruiting necessary to recover from a 10 percent enrollment drop.
Tompkins said he was concerned for the 45 percent of people enrolled at Wichita State who were classified as first-generation college students, who require a broader and more costly support network to succeed. Serving the interests of those students is difficult when state funding lags peer states and students are expected to make up the gap, he said.
"How to we get enough need-based scholarships now to make sure these students can be here?" he said.
Myers said he wanted K-State to do a better job recruiting first-generation students, especially among underrepresented segments of the state's population. Getting those students through the door won't be enough, he said.
"I know we all believe getting somebody to enroll is step one. Then you have a moral obligation to get them through the pipeline," Myers said.