Business group calls for state-funded tuition assistance program

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has proposed a new way to help Kentucky students pay for college, aimed at simplifying and reducing a large and complicated burden.

The Guaranteed Affordability Program calls on state government to fill the gap between what a family can afford and what college costs. Chamber President Dave Adkisson presented the plan to a legislative subcommittee on Monday.

Although many details of the plan — such as its cost to state government — remain murky, it includes these general concepts:

■ Students would contribute to the cost of attending college an amount equal to what they could earn from a 40-hour work week during the summer and 10-15 hours a week during the school year at a minimum wage job. This sum could be supplemented by state scholarship awards such as the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship.

■ Families would contribute an amount determined by federal financial aid guidelines.

■ Scholarships or other funding given by the college or university would be applied to college costs.

■ The state would make up the difference between the above sums and the cost of attending a public university or community and technical college.

The formula would be the same for students whether they attend public or private schools. The calculation would include lodging and books, Adkisson said.

Tuition increases are “working against our bigger goals,” Adkisson said. “If we're going to double the number of graduates in the state, we can't be passing on a greater and greater burden to the family.”

In Kentucky, tuition at public universities and community and technical colleges has gone up an average of 10 percent a year for the last 10 years, rising about four times faster than the rate of inflation and the growth of the state's median family income.

University officials blame the tuition increases on a steady decline in the percentage the state pays for a student's college education. Ten years ago, the state paid two-thirds and the student paid one-third. Now, the split is 50-50.

The chamber did not release any financial estimates of how much the plan would cost the state because it would require a thorough analysis of available resources, Adkisson said. KEES, for example, is a multimillion-dollar program that awards money to incoming college students based on their high school grades.

The chamber is not recommending dismantling KEES or any other program, but the entire system would have to be analyzed to see how it could be restructured.

“It's a complex issue; it's a complex structure and we think bringing simplicity and streamlining the financial aid structure would be advantages to this kind of program,” he said.

Two other states, Oregon and Minnesota, have already adopted similar programs.

Legislators also have been discussing such options.

Republican Sen. Ken Winters of Murray, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he expects his committee to look at the proposal during the 2009 legislative session.

“It is something we would have been engaged in had we had free budget resources this year,” he said.

Instead, lawmakers cut spending on higher education by 3 percent last fiscal year and 3 percent this fiscal year, which began July 1.

Richard Crofts, interim president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, agrees that there needs to be a thorough analysis of student aid, but worries that the chamber proposal doesn't consider reduced state funding to universities.

“It doesn't really address the shared responsibility of the state in terms of supporting the universities,” Crofts said. “They're talking about adding a potentially significant amount of money.”

In addition, he said, many families can't afford to pay what the federal guidelines tell them is expected.

“When most families fill out the form and see what the federal government expects them to pay, they're shocked, and that's why we have students borrowing so much,” he said.

Officials from the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority did not return calls Monday.