Opponents of UPike proposal make their case to lawmakers

lblackford@herald-leader.comFebruary 28, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Far Eastern Kentucky needs more people with college degrees, but making the University of Pikeville a state-supported school is not the best way to accomplish that goal, Morehead State University President Wayne Andrews said Tuesday.

Andrews told the House Education Committee that Morehead, and other public and private colleges and community colleges, have improved higher education in the region, and those efforts will continue. Last week, UPike President Paul Patton told lawmakers why he favors the proposal.

Making UPike public will further dilute the state's shrinking funding for higher education, Andrews said.

"I believe there are other ways to achieve the objective rather than that path," he told committee members. "What we're talking about is a shrinking pie."

Both sides of the debate agree that the region's educational statistics are dismal.

In the 12-county area around UPike, about 11 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree, compared to 17 percent statewide.

Andrews outlined a long list of state and federal programs that Morehead State is engaged with to help more students finish high school and college. He cited numbers that he said show those programs are working.

For example, the college-going rate in the UPike region varies between 55 percent and 69 percent. That's much higher than some portions of Western Kentucky.

"The system of higher education in place ... is working," Andrews said.

The discussion was so long that Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock was rescheduled for next week. Others in the audience included Morehead State regent David Hawpe, Morehead alumni and Frankfort lobbyist Terry McBrayer, Patton and House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

Stumbo is sponsoring House Bill 260, which would help finance UPike with multi county coal severance tax dollars.

Kentucky's public universities face a proposed 6 percent cut in the upcoming state budget. Andrews said he favored an alternative idea that would use coal severance taxes to pay for scholarships for students from coal-producing counties. Those scholarships could be used at any Kentucky school, and possibly be forgiven if students returned to their home counties.

Patton said Tuesday that he opposed that plan because one objective is to keep students in the region, rather than having them leave for schools elsewhere in the state.

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, the co-sponsor of the bill, questioned whether Morehead State had done enough to help students in the UPike region.

"The real issue here is that the need is not being met, college attainment is not being met, that's the most important issue," Combs said. "President Andrews, he's helped make our case ... no single institution can do this by themselves."

Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said most of the officials in coal-producing counties whom he had talked to oppose the idea of using coal severance money to finance the plan.

"I can only pick out two or three who are in favor of this," he said. "Why would we take on more responsibilities when we have trouble taking care of the responsibilities we already have?"

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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