More than 1,000 employees at the University of Kentucky will be able to continue working on degrees they've begun at other universities under a new program announced Tuesday.
Those employees had been part of a statewide tuition waiver program that allowed them to take classes toward degrees at other public colleges and universities for free.
Lawmakers, though, ended that program last month as a money-saving measure for public institutions that are cash-strapped after a decade of state budget cuts. Because the program's end would leave numerous employees stranded in the middle of earning their degrees, UK will pay their tuition for the next three years.
"We are responding to the continuing educational needs of our employees," President Eli Capilouto told the UK Board of Trustees Tuesday. "That's what compassionate, thoughtful institutions do — funding a program that is important to a number of people on campus, who are seeking professional and educational development opportunities."
Neither the legislation nor UK's decision affect two other benefits to UK employees, which give tuition breaks to employees and their families who take courses at UK.
About 1,100 UK employees currently take classes for free at other institutions, and about 75 percent of them work for UK HealthCare. But only about 200 employees from other institutions take classes for free at UK.
It's not clear how many public university employees take advantage of the program statewide.
UK officials are still trying to figure out how much the program will cost, and they're talking to other schools about possible partnership programs. Individual departments could also study whether the program should continue beyond three years to help future employees who are required to have additional degrees.
Most of the UK employees pursue degrees at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Eastern Kentucky University. Presumably, the program could be a source of new revenue for those schools.
"We are glad when any employer provides tuition support to employees to take BCTC classes," said BCTC President Augusta Julian. "This decision would be a win-win for us and UK. It helps both the college with increased enrollment and our communities with a better trained workforce."
EKU spokeswoman Kristi Middleton said EKU currently has more than 600 students from other public institutions using tuition waivers, and about 400 of them are UK employees.
"UK’s willingness to cover the cost of these employees’ courses will support our ongoing budget strategies to reduce expenses," she said. "EKU looks forward to discussions with UK and our partner institutions to identify mutually beneficial agreements to allow continued education for public employees."
Middleton said that EKU will continue to offer its current tuition waiver program for eligible EKU employees, their spouses and dependents taking EKU courses.
It's not yet clear what other universities will do.