The people who will study the feasibility of making the University of Pikeville a state school know Kentucky well: They helped former Gov. Paul Patton design the 1997 Higher Education Reform Act.
The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems will be paid $84,400 to complete the study ordered by Gov. Steve Beshear last month after Patton, now the president of UPike, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo introduced the idea.
According to the contract, NCHEMS must complete the study by March 15, which doesn't leave much time to get House Bill 260 through the legislative process. Democratic state Rep. Carl Rollins of Midway, chairman of the House Education Committee, said earlier this week that he would not call the bill until the study is complete.
"We have a commitment to looking at this as objectively as possible," said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate at NCHEMS, which has worked on many projects in Kentucky, including one last year that studied the state's overall college degree attainment rates. "Our role is not to get tangled in politics."
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So far, the UPike issue has involved as much politics as policy. The proposal would help fund the school with about $14 million a year in multicounty coal severance tax dollars, an idea that is opposed by some county officials in the region. However, Stumbo has called the proposal his top legislative priority.
Supporters say a public UPike would allow more access to students in far Eastern Kentucky, which needs more people with college degrees. Making it public, Patton said, would allow the school to lower tuition from its current $17,000 a year to close to $7,000.
Patton also has pledged to establish middle school and high school programs to encourage students to go to college. And he wants to establish satellite campuses, where they would charge community college tuition rates.
Patton said Thursday that NCHEMS was a good choice, as its familiarity with the state would help with the short time frame.
"The facts are so startling that it would be pretty hard to miss them," he said, referring to college-going rates in the 12-county region around UPike that are about half the state average.
McGuinness said the contract is helpful because it requires the study to look at how other state institutions and the state in general would be affected by a public UPike.
"We do the best we can analyzing the data to help states make decisions on really difficult things," he said.
The contract requires NCHEMS to analyze the following areas:
■ The extent of postsecondary educational need in the region.
■ The existing capacity of UPike to meet the region's educational needs, along with its academic and financial capacity, including matters pertaining to debt, post-retirement benefit liabilities, endowment management, physical resources, technology utilization, student support capacities, work-force issues, strategic positioning and accreditation.
■ Additional resources that might be necessary.
■ The impact of a public UPike on other public institutions.
■ How the change would affect the Higher Education Reform Act of 1997.
■ Identification of alternative approaches that could address the higher educational needs of the region.
Patton said he is traveling the region, explaining to county officials his goal of improving college-going rates across the region.
"When you explain to people the coal severance tax is for economic development, and if we don't bring up education levels, we'll never get more industry," Patton said. "When you talk to them about it that way, they have a little different attitude about it."