FRANKFORT — There is a move afoot to make the private University of Pikeville a state-supported school, and lawmakers could be asked to consider the proposal in the upcoming legislative session.
It's been four decades since the legislature last took a private, four-year university — the University of Louisville — into the state's public higher-education system, so adding Pikeville is a significant public-policy issue.
The idea raises concern among officials at other state universities that bringing Pikeville into the system could eat into their funding.
State support for Kentucky's eight public, four-year universities has gone down significantly as a percentage of their budgets. This has led to tuition increases, and the pitch to add Pikeville comes at a time when the state budget is stretched thin.
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However, supporters of the idea argue that making Pikeville a state university would improve the economy of Eastern Kentucky by making a four-year degree accessible to more people.
In addition, boosting the education level and economy of the distressed far eastern end of Kentucky would benefit the entire state, supporters said.
"If Kentucky's going to be what Kentucky needs to be, then Eastern Kentucky is going to have to come up in its education level," said former Gov. Paul Patton, who is president at the University of Pikeville.
The legislature would have to approve making Pikeville a public university. There is at least one powerful supporter of the idea — House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Floyd County.
"I have always advocated the need for a four-year state university in the deep mountains to educate our children and pull ourselves out of a cycle of poverty," Stumbo said Wednesday.
Pikeville reported financial deficits in 2008 and 2009, according to published reports at the time.
However, Patton has helped put the university on better footing, and he said Wednesday that the proposal to make it a state school is not motivated by financial crisis.
The university will continue to operate whether or not it becomes a state school, he said.
Rather, the objective of getting state money for Pikeville would be to lower tuition, which now tops $16,000 a year, Patton said.
At Morehead State University, the closest four-year state school, tuition costs $8,000 a year, President Wayne Andrews said.
There are 1,800 full- and part-time students enrolled at Pikeville, including 300 in its school of osteopathic medicine, Patton said.
Making it possible for more people to attend Pikeville by reducing tuition would mean they would stay in the area, Patton said.
Now, many who go to state schools outside Eastern Kentucky don't come home, he said.
Stumbo said about 8 percent of the people in Pike County are college graduates. In places with public universities, such as Madison and Warren counties, it's around 20 percent, he said.
"This will help our middle-income students," Stumbo said of making Pikeville a state school. "These middle income kids, they become the economic drivers — they are the entrepreneurs. Over time, this could change the entire dynamic of that region."
Andrews, the Morehead State president, said Patton told him the proposal would include seeking $12 million a year in coal-severance money to support Pikeville as a state school.
Andrews said the idea of making Pikeville a state university causes concerns about whether the move would affect funding for existing public schools.
Morehead, with about 10,600 students, has Pike County as part of its service region.
The proposal also raises a number of questions, Andrews said, such as what analysis has been done of whether Kentucky needs another four-year public school and, if so, how it should be funded, and what the impact would be on other schools.
"I don't know how the General Assembly could consider this kind of idea without that analysis," Andrews said.
Andrews said he and other state-university presidents took part in a conference call on the idea Wednesday.
There was strong agreement that more information is needed about the implications of making Pikeville a state school, he said.
House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook and a graduate of Morehead State, said Morehead and Pikeville have both played a key role in higher education in Eastern Kentucky.
"If the proposal does move forward, it needs to be mutually beneficial for both schools," Adkins said.
Stumbo said making Pikeville a state school would not hurt other universities.
Stumbo said the plan is still being worked out, but he hopes to have a proposal ready for lawmakers to consider in the legislative session that begins in January.
Stumbo said the University of Pikeville would deed its assets to the state, including the medical school.
The value of those buildings and other assets is not clear, but it's likely more than $200 million, Stumbo said, making the deal a bargain.
"Can you afford not to take this opportunity at this price?" Stumbo said.