As gubernatorial hopefuls Matt Bevin and Jack Conway crisscross the state promising to create jobs, they should be asked this at every stop: How would they revive the progress Kentucky had been making in graduating young people from college?
Almost every state cut funding for higher education after the 2008 economic collapse. But few have slashed as deeply as Kentucky, where state revenue chronically falls short of need, largely because an antiquated tax system is in desperate need of reform.
While others have been restoring higher-ed funding, Kentucky is still cutting — $179 per student in 2014-15, the most of any state, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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After the 1997 Higher Education Reform Act infused colleges and universities with new funding and purpose, they achieved dramatic results. From 2000 to 2009, Kentucky ranked first for growth in four-year graduation rates, second for associate degree attainment and third for growth in three-year graduation rates from community colleges.
After cuts of $178 million over the last six years, we're stalling out: The state's pace of improvement fell to 41st, 24th and 44th respectively in the three categories.
Both analyses by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems were commissioned by Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education.
Since 2008, tuition nationally and in Kentucky has soared by an average of 28 percent while real median income fell.
Student debt has climbed. But the value of federal Pell Grants, the largest source of need-based financial aid, has fallen. The maximum aid grant now covers roughly 30 percent of the average cost of a four-year public college, the lowest share in 40 years, according to the Washington-based center.
This eroding support for educating Americans is economic suicide in a competitive world.
Meanwhile, Kentucky struggles to catch up at home. Our college attainment rate is about 28 percent versus a 33 percent U.S. average.
Kentucky is still increasing college graduates, but undergraduate enrollment fell last year by 2.5 percent. The largest decline was among community college students, those most affected by tuition increases and declining financial aid.
Kentucky cannot compete for good jobs without a better educated populace. Remind your would-be governors of that at every turn.