Most Kansas Colleges Saw Their Costs Skyrocket. Here's How Four Colleges Avoided That

Nov 25, 2019
Originally published on November 25, 2019 5:52 am

Every college in Kansas is more expensive today than it was a decade ago.

Tuition and fees haven’t gone up every year — this year, the Kansas Board of Regents convinced most of the state’s universities to hold tuition flat — but that doesn’t change how expensive college has become.

The average Kansas college, public and private, saw the cost of attending rise 43% from 2009 to 2019, according to a Hechinger Reporter analysis that takes into account fees, books, tuition, room and board and other expenses.

While forgoing big tuition hikes can lead to staff cuts and deteriorating buildings, some Kansas colleges have avoided raising tuition too much. Here’s how four of them did it.

Washburn University

Until 2013, Washburn University was more expensive than the average Kansas college. But with a less than 14% increase in cost between 2009 and 2019, Washburn is now cheaper than the average.

The university credits its unique position as the only municipal university in the state for keeping prices down.

As state funding for higher education has eroded over the last decade, students at public universities have had to bear a larger portion of their education expenses. But Washburn is less dependent on money doled out by legislators who work in Topeka because it's owned by the city of Topeka.

Washburn also has its own Board of Regents, separate from the board that governs the other state universities. Washburn President Jerry Farley said it makes the school more flexible when it comes to adjusting the budget.

“There’s just no bureaucracy,” Farley said. “I can call the regents, get a meeting scheduled and present to them an adjusted budget in a matter of two or three weeks.”

That local dependency does come with issues. While most of the other state universities held tuition flat this year because of some restored state funding, Washburn raised its tuition 2.7%, and also had to deal with a decline in sales tax revenue.

Still, Farley believes local support makes the difference.

“People here in Shawnee County, they view us as their university,” he said. “They have always been supportive of Washburn.”

Cloud County Community College

Cheap tuition is part of the reason Cloud County Community College in Concordia and Junction City was named the best community college in the country by financial advice company SmartAssets.

The college increased its price tag by just 21% over the decade, about half less of what other Kansas colleges did.

Like Washburn, Cloud County Community College points to local support for its low cost. The college shares many of the same assets with Concordia Public Schools: classrooms, baseball fields, a wrestling facility.

“We’re able to utilize funds that would have to go towards that,” Cloud County Community College President Adrian Douglas said. “Were able to stretch those dollars, which helps us then be able to keep our costs down for our students.”

Most community colleges help fill the needs of local businesses. But Cloud is asking its business partners to provide more support in exchange for training the workers they want. For example, wind energy companies like NextEra Energy and Meridian Way have donated hundreds of thousands in equipment for Cloud’s wind energy training programs.

And the college is hoping to be more aggressive in getting support from companies, Douglas said: “It’s tell us what you want and we’ll do it but we need your help to make it happen.”

Still, keeping prices down has not been without painful staff cuts. While the university says losing staff is a last resort, it has cut back on its administrative team. And when a faculty member retires, a department has to justify why it shouldn’t be left unfilled.

Dodge City Community College

Glendon Forgey, Dodge City Community College’s chief financial officer, believes there’s no one shortcut to keep tuition low. It’s about hunting for ways to save one dollar at a time, be it through refinancing debt, outsourcing custodial jobs or buying more efficient light bulbs.

“It’s not rocket science,” Forgey said. “It’s just implementing good business practices.”

The sticker price of attending Dodge City Community College has gone up less than 8% — the smallest increase for a public university in the state. The school also trains helicopter pilots in Arizona, which brought $3.5 million back to the school between 2011 and 2019.

Forgey also argues that community colleges have an easier time keeping their price tag down than universities because they’re already lean — less administration, less of a focus on research and fewer amenities that drive up student fees.

“You’re just going to have less cost, especially on the administrative side,” Forgey said.

But when most of the budget goes to paying faculty, it’s near impossible to balance the books down without cutting professors. Between 2012 and 2017, Dodge cut $1 million from its instruction expenses, a more than 25% decrease.

Both Dodge and Cloud have seen declining enrollments as well, leading to less revenue. Community Colleges blame a tight labor market for fewer students seeking out degrees. So long as the economy remains hot, it’s likely more students will opt out of community college, leaving colleges with less revenue and making it harder for them to avoid raising tuition.

Donnelly College

Donnelly College is a private Catholic college in Kansas City, Kansas. According to its president, Monsignor Stuart Swetland, the university has kept cost through one major focus — accessibility.

“Too much of higher ed has become inaccessible to those from the lower economic parts of our society,” Swetland said.

Since 2009, the price of attending Donnelly has gone up 28%. One reason: It’s a no-frill campus: There are no intercollegiate sports and no dorms.

But keeping expenses down has hurt Donnelly elsewhere.

It was put on probation by the Higher Learning Commission in 2017, partially because of the poor state of the college facilities, such as the former hospital building most of the college is located in. The HLC also determined the college wasn’t bringing in the revenue it needed to support its budgets; other issues had little to do with money, such as poor strategic planning. The college was taken off probation early this year.

Donnelly has since raised its rates and Swetland said it’s looking to find the right balance between keeping tuition low and offering a high quality education.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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