After the 1997 Higher Education Reform Act, Kentucky's colleges and universities saw big gains in funding, and enrolled and graduated many more students. But after years of funding cuts, those improvements are slowing dramatically.
From 2000 to 2009, Kentucky ranked first in the nation for the pace of growth in four-year graduation rates, second for associate degree attainment rates and third for three-year graduation rates from community colleges, according to an analysis by the state Council on Postsecondary Education and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
Six years and cuts of $178 million later, Kentucky's pace of improvement fell to 41st, 24th and 44th, respectively, in those same three categories.
Last year, Kentucky had the largest per-student funding cut in the nation, at $179, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. It is just one of three states — joining Oklahoma and West Virginia — that cut per-student funding in each of the past two years.
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People who want Kentucky's economy to improve should be worried, said Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education.
"In the immediate wake of higher ed reform in 1997, Gov. Patton and the legislature made investments, and those investments paid off," King said. "Now, the pace of improvement has slowed dramatically. The risk is if we continue on the course we've been on, it's putting enormous pressure on tuition, and we're starting to see that the proportion of young people choosing to go to college has actually dropped."
Kentucky has continued to make gains in overall graduation rates. In 2012-13, 62,000 degrees were awarded, exceeding a statewide goal.
"The number one demand of employers is a workforce that is predominantly people with college degrees," King said. "We're competing with the other 49 states and the world for good-paying jobs. Currently, Kentucky's college attainment level is about 28 percent, compared to the national average of 33 percent.
And last year, total undergraduate enrollment fell 2.5 percent, most of it due to drops at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which educates many of those most affected by tuition increases and financial aid cuts.
State funding cuts force colleges and universities to depend more on tuition. In Kentucky, tuition on average has gone up 28 percent since 2008, although that varies greatly among schools. At the University of Kentucky, for example, tuition next fall will be 51 percent higher than 2008 rates.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that nationally, tuition jumped nearly 28 percent from the 2007-08 to the 2013-14 school years, while real median income fell roughly 8 percent over the same period.
"Smart investments in public colleges and universities will help strengthen our economy," said Kenny Colston, communications director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a state partner of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Sadly, our elected leaders are still failing to make those smart investments, threatening the state's well-being, overburdening students and holding everyone back."
Most policymakers think the answer lies in tax reform that produces new revenue for the state. And lawmakers agree, to a point.
"Without true tax reform you're not going to solve revenue problems," said Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "But I think ... it has to come from the governor's office, to be honest with you. That's the bully pulpit. If you have the support from that position, I think you could get it done."
But Rep Rick Rand, D-Bedford, who chairs the House Budget Committee, said the governor has pushed and the legislature refused to act.
"Gov. Beshear has worked very hard on it, but at some point you have to acknowledge the political realities," Rand said. Also, he pointed out, the two political parties have very different definitions of tax reform.
King said that he hoped the legislature would find new revenue through tax reform, but that in the meantime, cutting higher education only hurts the state's economic health.
"One of the things we point out is that people with higher levels of education earn more to pay more taxes, and they place far fewer burdens on social services of the state — they are healthier, less likely to be incarcerated," King said. "Making the investment today will pay off significantly in reducing pressures on other areas that the state is paying enormous sums on right now."