Amid the confusion of the General Assembly's last hours came some good news for students in Kentucky's coalfields: Lawmakers approved a state program to use coal severance dollars to help students finish four-year degrees.
"I'm thrilled," said Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, of the Kentucky Coal County College Completion Program, which has now moved from a small pilot program to a much larger one set in state law. "Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, we went to the wire and lost, and this year they spared me 21/2 hours."
The idea of using coal severance dollars for scholarships got traction several years ago when a proposal to make the University of Pikeville a public school failed. As a compromise, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, Combs and other lawmakers pitched the idea of a scholarship that would help students from Eastern Kentucky stay in the region to finish school.
Now, the nine-county, $1 million pilot project will be a $4 million, 34-county program that will affect the entire state. It's to be administered by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.
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Because the program is aimed at college completion, the scholarships are offered only to students who have completed 60 credit hours, usually rising juniors. So those students who live in a coal-producing county can use the money at any public or private school in any other coal-producing county. If they want to get a degree in a field that isn't offered locally, they can also use the money at a school outside the coalfields.
For example, say a student completed pre-engineering at a community college in Eastern Kentucky and wanted to finish up with a mechanical-engineering degree. The student could use the scholarship at the University of Kentucky, even though it's not in the coalfields.
"You want to make sure they have access to all types of programs," Combs said. "So if the program doesn't exist where they come from, they get to use the money to go elsewhere."
The legislation says that recipients can receive maximum awards of $6,800 a year for private schools, $2,300 a year for public schools and $3,400 a year for a nonparticipating institution outside the coalfields. Students can receive the funding for a limit of five full-time semesters, but each student's award will be formulated as 40 percent of the amount remaining after subtracting the student's federal and state grants, and scholarships from tuition and fees.
Carl Rollins, executive director of KHEAA, said that under the pilot program, most of the money went to the University of Pikeville and Alice Lloyd College because they were the only four-year schools in the prescribed area. The expanded program will open up to many others, including Union College, Brescia University, Kentucky Wesleyan College, University of the Cumberlands, and four-year extension campuses including Eastern Kentucky University-Corbin, Manchester and Somerset, and Western Kentucky University-Owensboro.
The program will also provide annual maximum $150,000 grants to Kentucky Community and Technical College System schools in coal counties: Ashland, Big Sandy, Hazard, Henderson, Madisonville, Owensboro, Somerset and Southeast. Those grants are to help expand outreach to high school students about college attendance and to help with retention, completion and transfer initiatives.
The applications will be processed by KHEAA on a first-come, first-served basis, Rollins said. The biennial budget will provide $2 million for the next two years; lawmakers will have to vote to continue funding each two-year budget cycle.
So far, so good, lawmakers say. As pilot project recipient Hanna McIntosh told the Herald-Leader in February, the program "has truly been a positive thing for this community and this university."
"We'll see how far 4 million will go," said Rollins, a former legislator who chaired the House Education Committee for many years. "There's no guarantee the kids who take advantage of this will stay in the coal counties, but it's better than what they've been using the coal severance money for, like Little League uniforms and things like that."