FRANKFORT — Soaring tuition is the likely reason Kentucky's public colleges and universities have seen their growth taper sharply in recent years, says a top state education official.
Enrollment growth at Kentucky's colleges was robust during the first few years after major reforms were enacted in 1997 but has dropped off in recent years, Richard Crofts, interim president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, said Wednesday at the first meeting of Gov. Steve Beshear's Higher Education Work Group.
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Total undergraduate enrollment in Kentucky's public colleges rose 20 percent from 2000 to 2003, but grew only 7 percent from 2004 to 2007, Crofts said.
This fall, enrollment dropped in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System for the first time since it began in 1998.
The decline comes as the state tries to meet the ambitious goal of doubling the number of residents with bachelor's degrees between 2000 and 2020.
"We're still making progress, but the rate of growth has diminished," Crofts said after his presentation. "We're not sure why, but we think the issue of affordability is the explanation for that."
Tuition at public universities and colleges in Kentucky has gone up an average of 10 percent a year for the past 10 years, rising about four times faster than the rate of inflation and the growth of the state's median family income.
As a result, tuition and fees for Kentucky colleges are now above regional and national averages.
"If we continue the direction that we've gone in the last decade with ever-increasing tuition rates, it's going to be too high for pretty much everybody," Crofts said.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, a member of the work group who implemented higher education reforms during his administration, said the slowdown in higher education enrollment is "directly related to the revenue cycles of state government."
"Had we had consistent growth in state revenue, we would have had increases in funding to higher education and more progress," Patton said.
Patton maintained that the state legislature and institutions of higher learning still are committed to higher education.
"There are certain needs the state has to fund, like Medicaid and criminal justice," Patton said. "Then everything else takes a pretty good-sized lick when the economy is bad."
From 1999 to 2008, state funding for postsecondary education increased 43 percent, Crofts said, compared with 87 percent for Medicaid, 72 percent for justice and public safety and 50 percent for primary and secondary education.
On average, state funding for higher education has increased 2.6 percent a year since 1999.
The bottom line, Patton said, is that Kentucky needs more revenue.
As governor, Patton changed the governance structure and funding of higher education. His reform package took community colleges away from the University of Kentucky but pledged to make UK a Top 20 public research university and pumped an extra $38 million a year into higher ed funding.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, acknowledged that it has been difficult for Kentucky colleges to plan for growth with "the state's up-and-down funding," but said 2.6 percent growth is "not terrible."
He suggested the legislature may want to commit to a specific funding for higher education over a period of several years.
The work group, co-chaired by Lexington businesswoman Mira Ball and Pete Maurine, senior vice president of Hilliard Lyons in Bowling Green, has set up two subcommittees.
Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller will chair the affordability subcommittee and Cabinet Secretary Larry Hayes will head the strategic planning subcommittee.
The full work group is scheduled to meet again Jan. 13 and will send recommendations to Beshear by Jan. 15 on ways to reduce college costs.
The group is supposed to send Beshear another report by Sept. 1 on how to create stable funding for public higher education.