Brownback’s ambitious undergrad proposal will challenge state universities



Gov. Sam Brownback poses for a portrait beside the Kansas flag.

If there’s anything students can agree on, it’s that they would love college to be more affordable.

At his State of the State speech earlier this month, Gov. Sam Brownback put forth a challenge to Kansas colleges and universities to develop four-year undergraduate programs that cost $15,000 or less.

For reference, tuition and fees for a four-year bachelor’s degree at a state university range from nearly $20,000 at Fort Hays State to more than $45,000 at the University of Kansas.

To entice participation, the governor declared that he would award $1 million in scholarships to the first institution to create such a program.

It’s not yet clear whether such a track would be available for anyone interested in Kansas colleges or only in-state students.

Bobby Gandu, WSU’s director of admissions, can see the benefits of an inexpensive undergraduate degree path.

“If we can demonstrate to students and parents that we’re going to be able to offer them a four-year degree at that $15,000 price point, I think we would be very well-received as an institution,” Gandu said.

Still, according to Gandu, WSU has made no definitive decision regarding participation in the governor’s challenge.

The question is whether or not schools have the means to reach the ambitious budgetary guidelines in a difficult financial time.

During the course of his administration, Governor Brownback has made sweeping cuts to higher education, including a $30.7 million cut for the 2017 fiscal year.

Colleges and universities can only cut back so much on cost before academics are sacrificed.

“As an institution for higher education, we have certain accreditation standards that we need to continue to meet regardless of the cost point,” Gandu said. “If meeting that goal meant sacrificing a quality education, we wouldn’t follow through with it.”

If WSU decides to pursue such a program, one method of reducing costs could be joining with smaller institutions.

“Wichita State might have to partner with WATC or Butler Community College or another school to where part of the time needed for that four-year degree is split between two campuses,” Gandu said.

Still, Gandu understands that the $15,000 price tag could be misleading.

“This is really just tuition and fees,” Gandu said. “From what we know, this doesn’t include room and board, books, or special fees you might have in an engineering or business class.

“It’s kind of a broad stroke, but there are a lot of details here and I’m not sure that once we peel apart the curtains and really look into it what we’re talking about is a $15,000 education.”

Either way, the governor has got institutions talking about how to make college more accessible and the scholarship money is tantalizing in a time when some have deemed higher education funding unconstitutionally low.

“It’s a pretty ambitious challenge the governor gave, but if the university decides that this is a direction that we want to go, I’m on board to do anything I can to make it happen,” Gandu said.