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WKU President Discusses Higher Ed Funding, University Construction Costs, Tuition Hikes

Kevin Willis

WKU President Gary Ransdell stopped by the studios of WKU Public Radio Tuesday morning to discuss state funding for higher education, a recent announcement regarding how university construction projects will be financed, and the impact of rising tuition rates on current and future students.

President Ransdell spoke with WKU Public Radio News Director Kevin Willis. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

Kevin Willis: Last week it was announced that Governor Beshear and state legislative leaders were backing $363 million in bonds for university construction and renovation projects. But it was understood that the schools themselves would be footing the entire cost for their respective projects, with no extra state funding involved. WKU was given approval for $22 million in bonds for a new Honors College and International Center.

Are you satisfied with that approach?

Gary Ransdell: “Well, I am. This is a unique way to approach these kinds of projects—unique in that heretofore, each university has gone to the General Assembly to seek independent agency bond authority whenever they had a particular project that was ready to go on that particular campus. So, rather than having six universities going to the General Assembly independently, seeking authorization for 11 projects, criss-crossing in the halls of the capitol, getting House and Senate leadership to understand and then get it through, we’ve instead submitted one concept, one proposal, one approval  for 11 projects on six campuses. All eight university presidents have signed on to this collaborative approach.”

“The Governor has embraced it, and—in fact—the Governor can take a lot of credit for getting House and Senate leadership together last week to make the announcement.”

Do you have any concern as a university president that Kentucky lawmakers may say to themselves, “If our public universities can foot the total bill for their construction projects in 2013, then they can do the same thing in 2014, 2015, etc.’”?

“That is a concern. But we’ve had agency bond authority for lots of projects throughout my 16 years as president. We’ve funded a number of projects ourselves. In fact, we have funded nearly $600 million in capital construction since I was president. And only about 20% of that has come through state funding. With a number of other projects, we found a way to fund through either federal support, or private dollars, or auxiliary revenues—things like the Student Life Foundation, which has funded renovations of our residence halls.”

“What we’ve tried to do at WKU is preserve our major academic priorities for straight-up state funding, and then we seek agency bond authority for projects we can pay for in some other way.”

While the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly just got underway, the 2014 session will be extremely important because it’s a budget-writing session. What are the prospects next year for lawmakers to increase higher education funding? Will there be further cuts?

“There will be no new state funding. But we believe we’ve reached the end of the cuts, as well, so we don’t anticipate more budget reductions next year. But with no new funding, we have to find a way to build a budget that takes care of our fixed cost increases. And we have to find some—even if it’s modest—dynamic for faculty and staff compensation at the same time we’re facing rising costs.”

“We’re projecting a 5% tuition increase next year. That’s what the norm has been for the last several years, and I think we’re into that modest tuition increase mode of 5% for the last few years, and I think for the next few years.”

Speaking of tuition—tuition levels have been rising at WKU, and throughout Kentucky and the nation. There are many young people who are really starting to question the value of going into debt to get a four-year college degree. Many of them look at older siblings, friends, and others who have gone into debt to get a degree, and who can’t get a decent-paying job despite having been to college. As a university president, what would you say to a Kentucky high school junior or senior who is having real doubts about taking on debt to get a four-year college degree?

“The average debt for a WKU graduate might be $30,000-$40,000. That’s going to be pretty close to-- maybe not your first car, but maybe the third or fourth car you buy during your lifetime. So you’re probably going to invest as much into an automobile as what you would spend on a college education.”

“I hope young people continue to recognize that those years in college provide a lot more than just a credential to get a job. If all you wanted was a job, then—yes—you can go on to a community college or vocational school and get a skill, get a trade, and become a welder, a plumber, or an HVAC craftsman, or an artisan, or whatever the case might be. And that’s great for an awful lot of young people.”

“Most students who come to a major four-year public institution with a broad range of academic programs do more than just get that credential. They grow, they learn how to reason, they learn independence, and they experience an international phenomenon during their undergraduate years--which we’re really pressing at WKU. They understand a global context, and they really bring value to their future employers, their family, themselves, to our society in ways that go way beyond just the raw credential of a given skill-set.”

Our interview with WKU President Gary Ransdell is airing Tuesday during All Things Considered, at 4:50pm central time, and again Wednesday during Morning Edition at 7:50am.

Kevin is the News Director at WKU Public Radio. He has been with the station since 1999, and was previously the Assistant News Director, and also served as local host of Morning Edition.
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