Major changes to KEES scholarship program get first approval as concerns linger

Graduating seniors waited their turn to receive diplomas at the Henry Clay High School graduation ceremony at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on May 25, 2017.
Graduating seniors waited their turn to receive diplomas at the Henry Clay High School graduation ceremony at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on May 25, 2017.

A bill that would dramatically change Kentucky’s main scholarship program jumped its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, despite numerous questions from legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

House Bill 247 — a major initiative of Education and Workforce Secretary Hal Heiner — would expand the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship to more students in high school, allowing them to use the money to pay for dual-credit courses that count toward high school and college degrees. KEES money could also be used to pay for workforce training programs or materials students might need in apprentice programs with private employers.

At the House Education Committee meeting Tuesday, lawmakers raised two major concerns:

▪ The bill lowers academic standards by allowing students to earn KEES money even if they have a grade point average of below 2.0 in high school. KEES is the state’s merit-based aid program, rewarding high school students with more money if they earn higher grades. Two other scholarships provide need-based aid to low-income students.

▪ The bill would limit KEES money to tuition, books and fees for college students, meaning that it cannot be used for housing or food, and it could only be used after all other aid has been exhausted. For example, low-income students who received both federal and state financial aid could conceivably cover all their academic costs at a community college. They would no longer be allowed to use their KEES money for other living expenses. They could, though, eventually use their KEES money if they attend a four-year school.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Tipton, told lawmakers the change was necessary to keep costs down.

“To make the bill revenue neutral, we had to make some concessions,” he said.

Tipton said the KEES program will also get $10 million that is currently spent on a separate dual-credit scholarship program, which will disappear.

Limiting how college students can use KEES money was a problem for state Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green.

“Those students who are working hard to achieve success to get into postsecondary education, they’re being punished under this bill by not getting to use the KEES money for room and food,” he said.

Meanwhile, financial aid advocates worry that expanding the number of high school students who receive KEES and the types of education programs they can spend it on will eventually mean less money for aid programs that help low-income students. Already, the College Access Program for low-income public college students and the Kentucky Tuition Grant program for low-income students at private schools turn down tens of thousands of qualified applicants each year because they run out of money so quickly. KEES is always fully funded.

“Our state needs to prioritize making college more affordable for low-income Kentuckians and House Bill 247, which would radically alter KEES, falls short of this goal in several ways,” said Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “We should be further investing in the state’s need-based financial aid programs, which are critical to college access and success for low-income Kentuckians, and certainly not shifting funding away from them.”

A leader of the Kentucky Association of Financial Aid Administrators told the committee he’s worried HB 247 could “destabilize” college attainment rates because it dilutes the impact of KEES.

“The current legislation belies excellence, achievement or attainment,” said Kevin Lamb, director of financial aid at Centre College and vice president of the financial aid administrators group.

State Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, said he was concerned about lowering academic standards for high school students but would vote for the bill because it expands postsecondary education opportunities to more students.

Moore was one of several legislators who said they were voting yes with reservations and would discuss possible tweaks with Tipton. The bill passed 11-4, with four Democrats on the panel voting no. It now goes to the full House.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford