Kentucky will spend more than $4 million during the next two years on a new scholarship program for upper-level college students who graduated from high school and attend college in a nine-county region of Eastern Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear has authorized spending $4.3 million in coal severance tax funds on the pilot project, the Kentucky Coal County College Completion Scholarship Program, his office announced Tuesday.
The program, aimed at boosting the region's abysmal education level, begins July 1 for college juniors, seniors and non-traditional students in Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike counties.
"We're very pleased; now it is our challenge to make it work," said former Gov. Paul Patton, president of the University of Pikeville.
In December, Patton pushed the idea of making UPike a public school using coal severance funds. He said the move would improve the region's low college attainment rate, which lags the rest of the state.
Only 18 percent of southeastern Kentucky residents ages 25 to 64 have a two-year college degree or higher, compared to the statewide rate of 29.8 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
When the idea of adding a college to the state system met opposition, Patton agreed to a compromise that would use the money for scholarships to increase college attainment in the region. But the compromise bill failed in the Republican-led Senate.
In response, Beshear has authorized spending $2,050,000 in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $2,250,000 the following year on the pilot scholarship program. The fiscal courts in Pike and Knott counties submitted an application for the funding to the Department for Local Government, which distributes a portion of coal severance taxes set aside for projects that benefit two or more coal-producing counties.
Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne Rutherford lauded the program.
"We need an educated work force, and increasing the number of college graduates in our area will make a significant impact in the strength of our work force in Pike County," Rutherford said. "Our area has a low percentage of college degrees, and this pilot project will jump-start our efforts to graduate more students."
Students who apply for the new program must have earned at least 60 credit hours toward a bachelor's degree, be in good standing with their schools, and be enrolled in at least six credit hours. Students also must seek all available state and federal aid.
The individual scholarship amounts will be determined by the school's base tuition and fees and the student's existing scholarships and financial aid. The program will be administered by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.
The scholarships will benefit students attending the main campuses of UPike and Alice Lloyd College, or the extension campuses of Morehead State University in Prestonsburg, Lincoln Memorial University, Lindsey Wilson College and UPike.
Starting this fall, Patton plans to set up extension campuses of UPike in all nine counties, where there will be four three-hour courses offered each semester.
"It's a fast timetable; we have to determine what students want to take when," Patton said.
Beshear said the program would improve college attainment rates despite the rising cost of college.
"These coal severance fund scholarships will surely help more of our students to achieve their goal of a college degree," he said.
The plan ignores several other private schools in coal-producing counties, including Union College in Knox County and University of the Cumberlands in Whitley County. Those schools are in the districts of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.
Last week, University of the Cumberlands President Jim Taylor said he had organized another request to Beshear for about $64 million over two years in coal severance money that would have helped students in all 25 coal-producing counties in Eastern Kentucky. The request was turned in jointly by the judge-executives of Whitley and Knox counties.
Taylor declined to comment Tuesday on Beshear's decision.
Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, praised Patton and Beshear for their efforts to increase college attainment rates in Eastern Kentucky.
"We look forward to working with all of the institutions serving the region to find models that can be applied across Kentucky," he said.
The grant also will provide some funding for improvements within interactive classrooms on Kentucky Community and Technical College System campuses to increase access to distance learning in the region.
In December, Beshear authorized a study on the feasibility of adding UPike to the state's university system.
That report, submitted in March, lauded the idea of more scholarships but said expanding UPike to its capacity of 2,000 students would accommodate less than a quarter of the additional 4,900 students the region needs each year to reach the state college attainment average.
In addition, the report said that because 85 percent of UPike graduates come from Pike, Floyd or Letcher counties, the move would have a limited effect on the entire 16-county region.