“Look to the left. Look to the right. One of you will not be here at the end of the semester.” Or so the rumor goes about the hard old science professor on his first day of class.
A more realistic first day of college class in Kansas could be as follows: “Look to the left. Look to the right. Oh, there is no one sitting in one of those seats. But there should be! They are on the class roster. But they aren’t here.”
These are the students who enroll in college but don’t come to classes very often—sometimes not at all. But their enrolment still drains some state support. And because the state of Kansas has limited resources, these students who attend class rarely—or not at all—are taking away money that would better support the genuinely hard-working college students of Kansas.
Today, for every dollar a student pays in tuition at a public university, the state is putting in 92 cents to support the instructional costs. Research universities claim state support is much lower because they add in all the grant money that underwrites their graduate research programs. But here we are talking just about the costs of teaching.
In the 1980s, barely 40 percent of Kansas high school graduates went to college and Kansas paid about two dollars for every dollar in student tuition. Today, nearly three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates go to tertiary institutions. If you nearly double the students going to school, then state support per student will be roughly cut in half.
There are many reasons that tuition at public universities has skyrocketed over the last two decades. But that empty seat in classrooms is an important part of that problem.
This should not have happened. Until the 1990s, Kansas was a state with “open admissions”—if you graduated from a Kansas high school, you were admitted to a Kansas public university. That ended when “Qualified Admissions” specified both a minimal high school curriculum and ACT scores for students entering colleges beginning in 2001. But there was a “window” for admitting students who did not meet the minimal standards. Some state schools admit few in this window. Others let in as many students as possible.
But the floodgates really opened when Kansas switched—from funding universities based on student numbers staying within a “corridor”—to letting schools keep their tuition and grow at will. That set state schools chasing after every warm body with a heartbeat and a credit card (and we suspect they might waive the heartbeat). Being tuition-based contributes to recruiting students who are less than college-able. (To be fair, I will admit that the University of Kansas has attempted to be more selective.)
Meanwhile, many high schools in richer Kansas suburbs emblazon their hallways with: “Where every student is college-bound.” This divorced-from-reality cheerleading puts a guilt-trip on any youngster who does not aspire to college. Add to that the No Child Left Behind teaching-to-the-test that has generated massive grade inflation. Students are now getting B’s for C work. This leads to disillusionment when a student discovers he or she is not a B student in college.
That empty seat in the college classroom may very well represent a student who doesn’t want to be in college. Some of those students might prefer to be an auto mechanic, construction worker or plumber. Kansas has shortages in many of these fields. And some of these professions pay more than a college graduate will earn.
The ACT has determined that only 25 percent of those who take that test in Kansas are “college ready.” But as long as our legislators and educational leadership continue to worship “growth, growth, growth,” our state dollars for universities will be stretched thinner and thinner. And good college students will pay more and more because of classmates who are not college-able.
If Kansas schools are more selective, they can be smaller and better. And student tuition can go down.