FRANKFORT —Saying 12 southeastern Kentucky counties are underserved by the state's higher education system, former Gov. Paul Patton and two lawmakers made their first pitch Tuesday to legislators about turning private University of Pikeville into a publicly funded school.
Patton, Pikeville's president, told lawmakers Tuesday that access to the state university system is inadequate in the 12 major coal-producing counties of southeastern Kentucky — Bell, Breathitt, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Leslie,Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Perry and Pike.
"Our students attend the state universities at one-third the rate of the rest of the state," Patton said. "The students and the parents of southeastern Kentucky are inadequately and unfairly served by the present system of state universities.
"This is not the fault of the current eight universities. The problem is that there is no existing state university which can adequately serve this region because there is no current state university in this
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Patton said graduates of southeastern Kentucky high schools go to college at a higher rate than the students in the rest of the state.
"The problem is, they go to community and technical colleges because that is what is available," he said. "And I am not criticizing our community and technical colleges. In fact, I am praising them. They do a fantastic job.
"Without them, we would be in an unimaginable predicament. But they can't provide the classes necessary to earn a bachelor degree."
The University of Pikeville now has about 1,100 full-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs.
By joining the state system, the university could lower tuition from $17,000 to $7,000 a year.
Patton, joined by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, said coal-severance tax money would be used to pay for making the university a public institution.
Stumbo previously estimated Pikeville would get $14 million a year in coal tax money, rather than general fund money that pays for most higher education funding.
Stumbo said it's unfortunate that some people "have felt threatened" by the proposal, and every educator in the state should support it.
Morehead State University supporters have expressed concern that the school would lose tuition-paying students, and therefore money, under the proposal. But Patton said the University of Pikeville does not intend to attract students from other schools. Instead, it wants to make sure students in southeastern Kentucky have access to a four-year state university.
The only lawmaker on the House Education Committee to question the proposal was Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Rockfield. He said the public needs more information to determine whether changing Pikeville's funding it is a good move.
The House Education Committee, which took no vote on the proposal, is set to discuss the issue again Tuesday, said Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway. Patton, who is president of the university, said he would like House approval before a consultant's study is released in mid-March.
The Senate likely will make changes to the bill, and both chambers would have ample time in the final weeks of this year's legislative session to iron out differences, Patton said.