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Governor Brownback Challenges Kansas Universities To Offer $15,000 Bachelor Degree

Michael Long, flickr Creative Commons

In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Gov. Sam Brownback threw down a gauntlet for state universities: Come up with a $15,000 bachelor's degree. In the education world, almost nobody saw that coming.

But now that the idea for a bargain bachelor's is out there, it's up to the Kansas Board of Regents to try and make it a reality.

"If we are to meet this challenge, it will be through a multi-institution response," regents spokeswoman Breeze Richardson said in an email. So now, the regents believe, no four-year institution in Kansas can meet a $15,000 price point, and that means a student would probably have to complete two years at a community college.

But many credits earned at Kansas community colleges already transfer to any of the state's six universities. "We are unique, in that the entire 32-institution system is centrally coordinated," Richardson says.

The governor's detailed budget proposal, submitted to the Legislature Wednesday, calls for $1 million to help fund the idea. Right now, nobody knows if that's for scholarships or administration.

But the Brownback plan suggests that he doesn't want the state to create a bargain bachelor's degree for just any subject. "The Governor’s proposal is intended to provide access to quality affordable higher education while focusing on high demand fields in an effort to grow the economy," according to the budget document.

While there are no specifics, educators would generally agree that means IT jobs, engineering or nursing. In fact, the regents already have programs to help fill the need for those jobs: The state provides $1.8 million a year for nursing scholarships resulting, the regents say, in an additional 2,865 nursing graduates since 2007.

But even if the regents can get tuition and fees down to $15,000, there's still room and board to consider, plus inflation.

“To me it’s a puzzle," said freshman Republican Sen. Ed Berger, appearing on the Statehouse Blend Kansas podcast.

Berger is the former president of Hutchinson Community College.

"You can throw a number out -- $15,000 -- I’m not sure how you’re going to arrive at that without additional state support for those universities to offset tuition increases," he said.

There's also concern that $15,000 may exclude students from attending the University of Kansas or Kansas State. Tuition at KU is $10,550 a year, and at K-State it's $9,874. The cheapest annual tuition in the state is at Fort Hays State, where it's $4,884.

Sam Zeff is host of the podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas and covers education for KCUR, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamZeff.