Kansas could struggle to stop college students from taking their money to other Midwestern states if it continues to charge higher tuition.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City announced last week it's offering in-state tuition rates to students from Kansas and cutting rates for 15 other states. The University of Kansas announced plans for a similar move for high-achieving students outside Kansas in December.
Both moves come as college enrollment declines and states struggle to find enough students to fill their public universities. Shifting demographics mean the pool of high school graduates is shrinking — particularly in the Midwest.
The extra competition could be trouble for Kansas, with its public universities struggling to match the lower tuition offered by other Midwestern colleges.
Shrinking enrollment numbers are causing schools to fight harder for students beyond their state lines. As a result, students see the barriers to heading out of state for college slowly shrink away.
“It’s extremely competitive,” said Tom Williams with Williams & Company, an enrollment management firm consulting colleges and universities. “Everybody is looking for where there are more college-bound students, so the competition for those students is much greater."
With the exception of academic powerhouses such as Harvard, universities traditionally worked within a local or state market. That slowly began to change over the last decade, as states began cutting their higher education funding.
To make up for budget gaps, universities began looking more for out-of-state students who paid their higher tuition rates. But as enrollment continues to slide, universities have begun reducing out-of-state tuition to fill empty seats.
Years of cuts to higher education funding in Kansas have led to less funding per student and higher tuition costs than universities in neighboring states, with the exception of Colorado.
In December, Kansas Board of Regents president Blake Flanders said he saw signs that tuition at Kansas state schools were already at the limits of how high they could go while still being competitive with Kansas’ neighbors.
“There’s not really that much more room to increase tuition without losing students,” Flanders said.
The drop in tax dollars used to subsidize public universities in Kansas could continue, sending tuition higher and tempting more student to go elsewhere.
“Universities are going to have to do more with less again,” said Brett Frazier, chief customer officer at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a consulting firm for enrollment management.
Schools will have to sell students on more than price. Unique academic programs aimed at local needs — such as the engineering programs that feed Wichita’s aviation industry — can help Kansas universities compete.
“I’ve seen over many, many years the ability of Kansas state higher ed to remake itself,” said Frazier, who graduated from the University of Kansas.
The growing competition is a potential boon for students — and for parents footing the bill. While tuition has increased dramatically over the past few decades, recent years have seen tuition hikes slow down.
“It’s a buyer’s market," said Williams, the consultant. “It’s becoming increasingly rare for a family to actually decide they can’t afford to attend the school they want to.”
Many students may not feel that way, however. Many still struggle to keep pace even with smaller tuition hikes and find their financial aid packages falling short.
The pool of high school graduates continues to shrink. Jerry Lucido, the executive director of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, said universities should look at students in local and underserved communities.
That includes minority and adult populations. At the same time, he said, continued demographic shifts means competition between states will continue to grow.
“It’s only getting started,” Lucido said. “It’s going to continue through 2020 and beyond.”
Stephan Bisaha is an education reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.