College students who gathered at the state Capitol this week to protest planned cutbacks in higher education funding have good reason to worry. Tuition and other expenses of a college education are sky-high – undercutting the economic rewards of earning a degree, especially for those who face years paying off student loans while starting careers and families.
However, the protesters may have won little sympathy from people who depend on the state for more basic needs. Gov. Steve Beshear called for a 6.4 percent reduction in postsecondary education funding over the next biennium, compared to 8.5 percent for most other agencies. Times are tough for everyone, but more so for some than for others.
Fifteen years have elapsed since the legislature enacted the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act, which sought to lift the commonwealth at least to the national average college graduation rate by 2020, in hopes a better-educated population would enjoy a higher standard of living.
The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education boasts of great strides since then. Most dramatically, Kentucky’s six-year graduation rate at four-year institutions improved from 44th in the nation to 35th between 2000 and 2009. The number of adults with associate or higher college degrees has grown steadily.
But economic malaise threatens to slow or even reverse this progress. The governor and state legislators must prioritize urgent needs in passing out state money. Any reduction in college funding means students have to bear more of the burden. According to CPE, the number of degrees awarded to full-time students at Kentucky’s public universities went up from 22,058 in 1999 to 52,384 in 2011 while total funding dropped from $15,327 per student to $14,592. Tuition revenue per student was less than half the amount received from the state general fund in 1999. By 2011, it accounted for $8,397 per student compared to $6,195 from the general fund.
By way of compensation, today’s students have more opportunity for government aid than their parents or grandparents did. A couple of generations ago, education at Kentucky’s public universities was quite affordable even without assistance. Public aid has vastly expanded since then but so have costs.
Some 30 students from Kentucky State University participated in Tuesday’s rally. Tuition at the Frankfort school has more than doubled in the past 10 years. It’s now $1,315 per semester for Kentucky residents and $3,904 for out-of-state students. The price of on-campus housing is also climbing.
“A larger percentage of our students are dependent on financial aid as opposed to their parents being able to pay for our education,” said Joseph Franklin, a KSU senior majoring in business administration.
Statewide, a $102.8 million reduction in postsecondary education funding from the general fund is projected in the 2012-2014 budget.
Without additional revenue, some might suggest deeper cutbacks in other state programs. But this could be risky. Prosecutors worry, for example, that lower criminal justice spending would endanger public safety. The governor’s emphasis on managed care to control Medicaid costs has drawn criticism for impeding the medical care poor patients need.
Kentucky’s hopes for a better future do ride, to a great extent, on raising the educational attainment of its citizens. Unfortunately, present-day reality offers no quick or easy route to the promised land.