Gov. Steve Beshear is absolutely right. As he shared in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this week, Kentucky must "create a seamless, cradle-to-career education system that is better preparing our students for this complex world."
It is this long-term strategy that will lift the standard of living and quality of life of our fellow citizens.
Beshear called for a renewed financial commitment from the state, including the pursuit of new revenues. He focused on the considerable needs of our public K-12 system, which has seen zero growth in its basic funding formula since 2008. We support his pursuit and the renewal of that critical investment.
But the commonwealth's future will not be significantly enhanced if our citizens' education stops with a high school diploma.
To truly achieve his vision of a stronger Kentucky — "a place where every person who needs a job has one, where every child has the opportunity to be successful, and where every family enjoys financial security and a high quality of life"— Kentucky also must recommit to its system of public higher education.
Consider the following:
Since the start of the recession in 2008, state funding per student (adjusted for inflation) at our public colleges and universities has declined over 30 percent.
State support for our public colleges and universities, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is lower today than it was nearly two decades ago in 1997 (coincidently the same year Kentucky passed the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act which promised significant and sustained investment in our postsecondary system). This, despite educating nearly 20 percent more students.
In 1999, 67 percent of higher education support came from public resources, while the rest came from students and their families. Today, those percentages have flipped, with the state now picking up only 38 percent of the cost of public postsecondary education. This is the principal cause of increasing tuition levels.
Financial aid resources for our neediest students are increasingly inadequate. Last year, alone, 70,000 students who qualified for need-based aid went without any.
To meet these financial challenges facing our students and our institutions, our campuses developed comprehensive efforts to identify savings, generate new revenues, expand public-private partnerships and focus intensively on the progress and success of our students and our communities.
Those efforts have paid off, but there is only so much that can be accomplished with declining state resources.
More students are earning degrees, especially in STEM and health-care disciplines. More community and technical college students are transferring on to baccalaureate programs. Grants and scholarships provided by our institutions have more than doubled since 2004. We have increased our online course offerings. University-generated research, which drives new technologies and strengthens business and industry, continues to grow.
Based on the average income of our graduates, the return on their investment takes between 2.5 and three years. Few, if any, other investments pay off that quickly. The benefits, however, go substantially beyond the financial well-being of our graduates.
Most of the doctors you visit, the highly skilled auto mechanics you use, the teachers in your children's classrooms, the oncology nurses, the accountants and the engineers designing the new bridges in Louisville earned their associate's, bachelor's, masters' and professional degrees at our state's public colleges and universities.
We employ, enroll or serve citizens in all of our 120 counties through educational programs, agriculture extension offices, business development support, medical services, research and myriad other programs. Higher education is the engine that drives progress and prosperity in our communities and across the state.
At two critical times in our history, great leaders succeeded in enacting laws that created public support for higher education. The land-grant college laws (Abraham Lincoln in 1862) and the G.I. Bill (Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) established that public subsidy of higher education was vital to the growth of the nation by making higher education accessible to talented people of ordinary means.
Those laws have been the foundation of the remarkable growth and prosperity that made our nation the envy of the world. That vision, however, is eroding as public support for higher education continues to decline. Talent to drive our businesses, serve our daily needs and support our communities will be in short supply, fueling a downward spiral in the quality of our lives and our prosperity.
So as the commonwealth recommits itself to funding education, we need to support all of public education, from, as the governor says, "cradle to career."
This commentary was signed by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the presidents and governing board chairs of all Kentucky's public universities and the community and technical college system.