Former Gov. Paul Patton is nothing if not persistent. Once he gets a bone in his teeth, he gnaws on it until it turns to bone meal or his teeth are reduced to nubbins. We learned this about him when he championed higher education reform in his first term and chewed the community college system away from the University of Kentucky in the process.
Now the president at the University of Pikeville, Patton has another bone in his teeth. It began as a proposal to use coal severance taxes from Eastern Kentucky counties to bring UPike into the state system of colleges and universities. When the idea failed to gain traction in this year's General Assembly, Patton and House proponents of the plan, including Speaker Greg Stumbo, went to Plan B: using severance taxes to fund scholarships for students from the same coal counties who have completed two years of coursework and who are attending a college or university located in one of those counties.
This plan passed the House but died in the Senate during the usual session-ending budgetary brouhaha.
Now Patton's back with Plan C: a request for a $6 million grant from the Department of Local Government to fund scholarships for students from nine coal counties during the next two fiscal years. Once again, he's asking for severance tax money. Once again, scholarships would go to juniors and seniors. Once again, they must be attending a college or university in one of the counties covered by the grant.
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This time, though, there is a rival proposal. At the behest of University of the Cumberlands President Jim Taylor, the judge-executives of Knox and Whitley counties are requesting a grant of $32 million over the next two years to pay for scholarships for students from all 25 Eastern Kentucky coal counties attending a college or university in any of those counties.
Without a doubt, spending coal severance money to help Eastern Kentucky students earn a college degree makes infinitely more sense than spending it on some of the gewgaws and baubles it's paid for in the past. But each of the latest proposals is as fundamentally flawed as the scholarship legislation that died in the Senate.
Start with what must be the overarching goal of any such scholarship program: giving the region a better-educated work force by increasing the number of residents with college degrees, thus making Eastern Kentucky more attractive for the kind of economic development it will need to survive after the coal is gone.
Neither of these proposals gets you there because there are no strings attached to the college degrees the scholarships would buy. College graduates would still be free to flee the region as soon as the diplomas are in their hands.
Neither of them contains a need-based element. Instead, the scholarships would represent an entitlement, for the rich and poor alike, awarded solely on the basis of geographic upbringing. This would repeat the mistake made with the Kentucky Education Excellence Scholarships, which also are awarded as entitlements without regard to need.
Patton's new proposal includes having a UPike presence in all nine counties, which would go a long way toward making it a publicly funded entitlement program for UPike. Sure, Alice Lloyd College and a couple of Morehead State University extension campuses would get some of the action, too. But the biggest beneficiary would be UPike. Taylor's proposal at least would let all the area's private schools in on the entitlement.
Taylor's proposal apparently would also include freshmen and sophomores in the scholarship program, which makes a lot more sense than limiting it to upperclassmen. If you don't have the money to get to college in the first place, you're out of luck under Patton's plan.
But there's a better way to achieve the overarching goal than either of these plans. Use the severance money to create a need-based loan program students from the coal counties could tap to get to college as well as stay there, regardless of where they go to school.
Those who return to the coalfields for a designated period of time after graduation would have their loans forgiven. Those who don't would have to repay the loans.
Such a loan program would be much more likely to increase the number of Eastern Kentucky residents with college degrees than just keeping students at home while they attend college.