College graduates in Kentucky would get tax credits to hold down the cost of higher education under a plan that state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said he will pursue if he becomes governor.
The plan would let people who finish a bachelor's degree in four years and stay in Kentucky claim a credit on their state taxes. Students would pay for college up front and claim the credit after graduation.
The amount of the credit would limit the cost of a four-year degree to $20,000 at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, and to $15,000 at the state's regional universities, said Comer's running mate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill.
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For instance, if it cost $45,000 to get a degree from UK, the tax credit would be $25,000.
The plan would hold down the cost of a college degree and reduce costs in the higher-education system by getting more students through on time, Comer and McDaniel said at a news conference in Lexington.
"Making higher education affordable for all Kentuckians is how you create a skilled work force that is central to attract and retain business, and how you ensure that young people are set for success," McDaniel said.
Comer, one of four candidates for the GOP nomination in the May 19 primary, said the current system lets too many students linger too long in college and encourages them to go deep in debt pursuing degrees for jobs that won't pay enough to let them satisfy their loans.
"We are setting students up for failure right out of the gate, and that is morally wrong," Comer said.
Tuition costs have gone up significantly in recent years, raising concerns about the ability of many people to afford a college education.
At UK, for instance, the average annual tuition bill for all in-state undergraduates will be $10,936 this fall, an 85 percent increase since 2005.
Officials at Kentucky universities have said state budget cuts have forced them to rely on more student tuition.
The Comer campaign's tax-credit plan would cut the cost of tuition at UK and U of L by half, McDaniel said.
Students who take longer than four years to finish college, in some cases because they have to work, could not take advantage of the tax credits.
McDaniel said there are many students who work while in college and still finish in four years.
The tax-credit plan would help "restore accountability and responsibility into the system of higher education," McDaniel said.
McDaniel said the plan would be revenue-neutral because it would cut colleges' costs and get educated people into the work force and paying taxes more quickly, offsetting the tuition refunds.
Comer's proposal also would let anyone who earned a two-year degree or certificate from the Kentucky Community and Technical College System claim a tax credit equal to the entire cost of their tuition and fees, if they finished the program within three years, and within eight years of graduating high school.
Employers could get $2,000 for each KCTCS graduate they hired, with the company giving the $2,000 as a bonus to the workers after two years on the job.
On other fronts, Comer and McDaniel said they would work to repeal Common Core curriculum standards in K-12 schools; mandate a 10 percent cut in KCTCS administrative costs through attrition and use the savings to pay teacher bonuses based on student achievement; promote charter schools, but also vouchers and tuition tax credits for underprivileged students to switch from poor-performing schools; and push to tie state funding for universities and KCTCS schools to student outcomes.
Legislators and higher education officials have long mulled tying some portion of state funding for the regional universities to the number of credits and degrees earned. However, college presidents and lawmakers have not been able to agree on how much money should be at stake or how much progress needs to be made.
Comer and McDaniel also said they would work to come up with a better way to track students in order to eliminate a situation in which the state now essentially pays double for some students in public schools.
If a student switches schools during the summer, his or her old school gets state funding based on prior-year attendance, but the new school gets aid based on student growth that is counted in the fall, according to the state Education Department.
The department estimates that accounts for about $16 million a year, said Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Education Department.
Comer and McDaniel propose to use money saved from a change in that system to pay for enhanced early-childhood math and reading programs.
The legislature would have to revise the education funding formula.