Education

A colossal wish list: millions in funding restored to Ky.’s public universities

The University of Kentucky has seen a lot of construction on campus over the past three years. UK officials are seeking more funding to renovate older buildings.
The University of Kentucky has seen a lot of construction on campus over the past three years. UK officials are seeking more funding to renovate older buildings. Herald-Leader

In the past seven years, Kentucky’s public universities have lost a whopping $173 million in state funding.

Those cuts started after the 2008 recession, when many states made similar funding decisions. But now Kentucky is one of the few that has not begun to reinvest in higher education.

That’s why higher education’s chief is hopeful that Kentucky legislators will fulfill what’s also a whopping request : $247 million in new operating and special initiative funding over the next two years, and $600 million more in state bonds for construction.

“Hope springs eternal,” said Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, which will make the request on behalf of the eight schools. “The signal I’m getting is that some legislators would like to find a way to fund a portion of our request because they see in the data that Kentucky is among a few states that has not begun reinvesting in education, and I don’t think they like being in that position.”

Eternal hope might come in handy during a budget session that’s predicted to have little new money and plenty of statewide needs, including a crisis in the state employees pension system.

But King is pinning that hope to data showing that that funding cuts have dramatically reversed Kentucky’s gains that were made in the first decade of the 1998 Higher Education Reform Act.

$247 millionrequested in operating and special initiative funds over next 2 years

The council’s request also fulfills a longtime request by legislators of both parties to tie some funding to performance standards. Under this proposal, $86.7 million over two years would be dependent on specific metrics: Improvements in degrees produced, retention rates, credit hours, graduation rates, achievement gaps, and the number of community college students completing remediation courses. Each standard will be individually set to each institution.

King said he hopes this part of the proposal will appeal to Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who is crafting an executive budget to present to the Legislature.

“This ties real money to achieving the targets that will be set that we believe are most important to Kentucky,” King said.

Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Bevin has made it clear that he supports performance-based funding for higher education. “In the coming weeks, as Governor-elect Bevin and his team work to prepare an executive budget, these issues will be thoroughly discussed, and the recommendations by the KCPE will certainly be taken into consideration,” she said.

The request has been endorsed by all eight university presidents and the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Addressing disparity

The request also includes $15.8 million over two years that would adjust historical funding disparities at schools where enrollment grew dramatically without increased state funding. At Northern Kentucky University, for example, between 1999 and 2014, the number of bachelor’s degrees increased 84 percent. The next highest was Western Kentucky University, at 44 percent.

“We’re gratified the CPE has acknowledged what we’ve been saying for years,” NKU President Geoffrey Mearns said. “Now there’s an independent verification of what we’ve said.”

Mearns said he is concerned that the large size of the total council request could mean that nothing gets funded.

“We want to emphasize the paramount importance of addressing the existing disparity,” Mearns said. “We want to try to lobby for that.”

The request also includes:

▪  $12 million to create Centers for Research Excellence at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. These centers would recruit and retain renowned research faculty and staff to help attract federal grants and programs.

▪  $4.5 million to support recruitment, retention and land grant programs at Kentucky State University.

▪  $3.5 million to support lower tuition and fee increases at KCTCS institutions for the next two years.

▪  $125 million in bonds to support a fifth round of funding for the Bucks for Brains program. This popular program allowed universities to match private donations with state funds to create stronger endowed professorships and research initiatives. Despite the program’s popularity, it was an early victim of budget cuts.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said Bucks for Brains had been invaluable to UK’s research endeavors, moving research expenditures from $82 million in 1997 to $266 million in 2015.

The program also helped UK leverage fundraising to create 94 endowed chairs, 214 endowed professorships and 262 fellowships, scholarships and endowments.

“Those investments are paying off for Kentucky in innumerable ways,” Blanton said. “UK’s research enterprise has yielded a $581.2 million impact on Kentucky’s economy, including an estimated employment impact of 8,114 related jobs.”

Money, money, money

The council is also recommending about $600 million in state bonding for renovation and new construction projects. Many of the state’s universities have aging buildings that require preservation.

$600 millionrequested in state bonds for construction

For example, the University of Kentucky wants $125 million in state bonds to match another $125 million to renovate and restore the oldest buildings at the center of campus.

UK officials say they’ve received positive feedback from lawmakers who like UK’s unconventional approach to capital construction projects, including the massive dorms built by a private developer.

Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who co-chairs the budget subcommittee on higher education, said the council request has been received positively, despite obvious caveats.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I support it wholeheartedly, but we have to be realistic as we go into the next session. The new governor is going to have an opportunity to establish his priorities, and his vision will be compounded by our current fiscal capacities.”

Although there’s a predicted surplus of 2 percent to 3 percent, “that still won’t be adequate to address some of the most pressing needs we have, which is to seek a long-term resolution to our pension challenge,” Simpson said.

He said he also likes the united front of university presidents, and he hopes it won’t devolve into turf battles over funding. He said he hopes Bevin will realize how important higher education is to economic development efforts across the state.

“I have to be open-minded that he will find money and devote money to this segment of society,” he said. “There are dire ramifications for the future if we fail.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

Funding request for higher education

  • The Council on Postsecondary Education two-year budget request includes:
  • $86.7 million over two years tied to performance standards, such as retention and graduation rates;
  • $15.8 million over two years that would adjust historic funding disparities at NKU and WKU;
  • $12 million to create Centers for Research Excellence at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville;
  • $4.5 million to support recruitment and retention at Kentucky State University;
  • $3.5 million to support lower tuition and fee increases at KCTCS institutions for the next two years;
  • $125 million in bonds to support a fifth round of funding for the Bucks for Brains program.
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