A proposal to make the private University of Pike ville the ninth school in Kentucky's higher education system runs counter to national trends of consolidation and privatization, according to education experts. In fact, the last time a state absorbed a private school into its public system is believed to be 1970, when the University of Louisville became a state school, according to the American Council on Education.
"Over the last generation, states have consistently reduced their support for public higher education and expected those institutions to behave more like private schools," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "Certainly, Kentucky is not immune to this development — sadly, the general pattern is for states to be disinvesting in education."
These days, it's far more likely that public university systems will merge two public schools in the name of efficiency instead of taking on a new campus.
"Nationally, as in Kentucky, we're seeing state per-student funding at the lowest point in three decades," said Dan Hurley, director of state relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "To squeeze in a competing and additional high-cost institution will cause some consternation."
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A week into the legislative session, Kentucky's politicians and college presidents are arguing over the proposal to make Pikeville a public university. Supporters tout the benefits of a four-year public school in far-Eastern Kentucky; critics worry about duplication of services and how an already strapped system can afford another school.
The investment in Pikeville would come from $14 million a year in coal severance tax money instead of General Fund money that pays for most higher education funding, according to House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. That would bring Pikeville's average tuition from $17,000 a year to about $7,000.
But others worry about the stability of coal severance tax dollars, and think that before too long, Pikeville will require General Fund money as well. That's the fear of Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell, who has seen the state's per-student spending decrease from $7,000 a student in 1998 to $4,500 a student last fall.
"The precedent that this would set for other private institutions across the state would be something we should all be concerned about," Ransdell said. "I understand the politics, but this is a major policy matter and it deserves really careful thought."
Stumbo calls it a "game changer" for Eastern Kentucky, while former governor and Pikeville President Paul Patton is promising dramatic changes in college graduation rates in the 12-county region — from about 36 percent up to the state average of 47 percent.
"The university is committed to doing whatever it takes to get the job done," Patton said Wednesday in a meeting with the Herald-Leader editorial board. "We're going to try to solve the problems of Eastern Kentucky, using Pikeville to do it. It's the only way to bring education levels up to state averages."
But Morehead State University President Wayne Andrews says higher education can't afford another school. Morehead's service area would be cut in half by a public University of Pikeville.
"The state has cut $100 million in higher education funding since 2007," Andrews said. "What the Commonwealth of Kentucky doesn't need is further duplication of what we already have."
Morehead has a joint program at the Big Sandy Community College in Prestonsburg, and has offered classes at the Big Sandy campus in Pikeville. In the past, it has even offered graduate classes at Pikeville.
The extension campuses are called regional post-secondary education centers, the brainchild of Patton during his tenure as governor.
For example, Western operates programs in Elizabethtown, Owensboro and Glasgow, while Eastern Kentucky University has a campus in Corbin and Morehead operates a joint program with the community college in Prestonsburg.
In addition, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System allows any four-year school to use its campuses. In Hazard, for example, KCTCS operates the University Center for the Mountains, which offers class space to Morehead, Lindsey Wilson College and Eastern Kentucky University.
"Let's use the system that's there and make it work better," Andrews said.
Patton said southeastern Kentucky needs its own university, not an auxiliary campus.
"That would not be a university that the people of the region would feel like is their university," he said. "A university is a very important thing for a region — the people of West Kentucky value Murray State University. Morehead is a great university for northeast Kentucky, but there is no similar institution for Southeast Kentucky."
Andrews calls that assertion "absolutely incorrect."
"I believe that if you look at what's happened in Eastern Kentucky the past five generations, Morehead has been the primary force in creating the middle class," he said. "Eighty percent of the teachers in Eastern Kentucky have an affiliation with Morehead; 7,000 alumni live in the area."
Although national experts agree that the Pikeville proposal goes against national higher education trends, they also agree that it could help transform the region.
"Eastern Kentucky would benefit enormously by having a more geographically accessible school," said Hartle of the America Council on Education.
The legislation to bring Pikeville into the state higher education system is supposed to be finalized by Wednesday, Stumbo said. He said he is filing the bill before a study on the issue is completed in March so that there will be time to get the bill through both the House and Senate before lawmakers adjourn in early April. The governor's office is hiring a consultant to look at the issue.
Jim Applegate was a vice president at Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education before becoming a vice-president at the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based education foundation.
Applegate said the upcoming study would be appropriate given Kentucky's gains and its continuing needs all over the state. Kentucky ranks 36th in the country for higher education degrees, up from 44th in 2000.
"The bottom line consideration ought to be what is the most effective and efficient way to deliver more education to Kentuckians," Applegate said. "I think it has to be focused on raising educational attainment levels, as they are looking at the bigger picture of this."