Education

‘Nothing is sacred.’ Could budget woes put KEES money, other scholarships in peril?

A crowd gathered during a Save Our Schools Kentucky rally to kick off their Stand Up for Education Advocacy initiative for the 2018 General Assembly held in the State Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort on Tuesday. Several groups participated along with Save our Schools Kentucky such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Fayette County Chapter of the NAACP.
A crowd gathered during a Save Our Schools Kentucky rally to kick off their Stand Up for Education Advocacy initiative for the 2018 General Assembly held in the State Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort on Tuesday. Several groups participated along with Save our Schools Kentucky such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Fayette County Chapter of the NAACP. cbertram@herald-leader.com

No one thinks the upcoming budget session in Frankfort — with a looming $1 billion deficit — will mean good news for higher education, but advocates are particularly worried by the possibility that lottery-financed scholarship programs might be in jeopardy.

“I have heard that’s what they plan on doing, although I’ve seen nothing official,” Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, said of the possibility that the next two-year budget might target money usually given to the state’s three major college scholarship programs.

“It’s really the only chunk of money so far that has not yet been manhandled,” said Rep. Kelly Flood, a Lexington Democrat and former chairwoman of the budget review subcommittee on education.

The current co-chairman of that committee, Rep. Steve West, R-Paris, said he also has heard that rumor, but “I’ve seen nothing on paper to that effect.” But, “I do know it’s going to be a rough session.”

Officials at the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority and Gov. Matt Bevin’s office declined to comment on their budget plans. Details of Bevin’s budget won’t be released until his budget address, Jan. 16.

But in a state strapped by budget woes and one of the most underfunded pension systems in the country, that “chunk of money” — $213 million in fiscal 2017 — could come in handy.

When Kentucky voters adopted a lottery in 1989, the law decreed that proceeds would go to education. The majority — about $113 million — went to the popular KEES program, which awards money to every Kentucky high school student according to their GPA. About $71 million went to the College Assistance Program, which helps low-income students with public college tuition, and $28.7 to the Kentucky Tuition Grant, which provides financial aid for low-income students at private schools.

About 94,000 students benefited from all three programs this year, and 675,000 have received the scholarships since 1999.

Most recently, the lottery also has paid for new Bevin administration dual credit programs and the Work Ready Scholarships, which will eventually disburse about $15 million a year. Bevin said he would stop the legislative practice of diverting some lottery money to the general fund to fill budgetary holes.

“All we keep hearing is that nothing is sacred, everything is on the table,” said Lucy Waterbury, an education advocate who spoke Tuesday at an education rally at the Capitol. “KEES has been sacred, and KEES is a bunch of money.”

Any cuts to student financial aid could further fuel a vicious cycle of higher education funding in a state trying to increase the number of people with four-year degrees. In the past decade, the state has cut university funding by $204 million, causing schools to raise tuition, forcing more students to turn to financial aid. On top of this, the state’s regional universities could be further crippled by the state pension crisis, which could cost them $47 million next year alone.

As Kentucky families are increasingly hurt by tuition increases, it’s not clear that people understand all the reasons behind them.

“One of the things we’ll call for this year is a deep discussion to define affordability,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. “What is really affordable for families is how we should be thinking about this — what we know is that students are feeling increasingly priced out of the secondary market, and we need to define affordability to drive increases in college attainment.”

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