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State may reassess scholarship program

Lawmakers might discuss tweaking the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship program during the 2010 General Assembly session, but wholesale changes are unlikely, education leaders and key legislators say.

KEES, funded largely by Kentucky Lottery proceeds, provides scholarship money to high school students who meet certain academic standards, such as a 2.5 grade-point average and an ACT score of at least 15. Only students who attend colleges in Kentucky and a select few out-of-state schools receive the scholarships.

"The ACT standard probably should be increased," said Rep. Carl Rollins, D- Midway and the House Education Committee chairman. He noted the bonuses for scores of 18 or lower on the ACT all are worth less than $150 a year.

The amount a student receives in KEES awards is set on a sliding scale, depending on grade point average and bonus amounts on ACT scores. The amounts range from a student with a 2.5 GPA earning $125 per year in college to a 4.0 student who scores a 28 or above on the ACT collecting $1,000 for each year enrolled.

Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said he would like to see the criteria for KEES scholarships be "more rigorous."

"Potentially, you would make the resources more meaningful to those who do qualify," he said. That could mean more competition, prestige and money, he said.

Having larger amounts per year also could help with the prevalent problem of students starting college but dropping out for financial reasons, he said.

Earlier this year, a group assigned by Gov. Steve Beshear to look at college affordability recommended that the KEES standards should match the college readiness standards that were called for in 2009 legislation. But those standards are still in the works.

State Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray and the Senate Education Committee chairman, said he doesn't expect any changes to KEES this year. But he said his committee might explore the feasibility of what he calls "last-dollar scholarships," in which the state would see how much a student can pay for education plus what would be available in financial aid, including federal grants, state KEES money and other scholarships. Then the state would provide whatever amount is needed to cover the student's tuition and fees bills.

"Why wouldn't we as a state look at trying to fill in that gap for that young person so they could get that education?" Winters said. "That would be the ultimate need-based" scholarship.

He said the cost hasn't been calculated and it might not happen during the 2010 General Assembly that begins Jan. 5. But he said it should be discussed.

But wholesale changes and proposals such as limiting KEES scholarships or Kentucky Tuition Grant money from going to Kentucky's private and independent colleges — which has happened in other states, such as Ohio — is unlikely even considering the tight state budget situation, the education leaders said.

"I don't think it would be sensible to simply eliminate that," King said of Kentucky Tuition Grant money that goes to private schools. "The private and independent colleges play an important role in our state. And the students who attend those schools, most of them, stay in Kentucky and become part of Kentucky's economy."