FRANKFORT — More Eastern Kentucky students would get financial help to finish college under a compromise bill that made it Tuesday through the first step of the legislative process.
Instead of making the University of Pikeville a public school, officials and legislators agreed to put coal severance money into a new program for students from coal-producing counties.
Under the new House Bill 260, Kentucky Appalachian College Completion Grants would be given to junior and senior college students who are from Eastern Kentucky and attend school there. Students with 60 credit hours could earn as much as $6,000 each academic year if they attend private schools that offer four-year degrees, and $2,000 a year if they go to public university extension campuses in the area. For example, a student could get a four-year degree by attending classes run by Morehead State University at its extension campus in Prestonsburg.
UPike President and former Gov. Paul Patton said that he still thinks UPike should be a public regional university, but the debate revealed the extent to which students in Eastern Kentucky have fallen behind the rest of the state in college attainment. About 11 percent of the region's students have bachelor's degrees, compared to 21 percent statewide.
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"This bill goes directly to the problem as surgically as I can imagine," Patton said.
HB 260 was approved by of the House Education Committee with 21 yes votes, three nos and one pass.
The idea to make UPike a public university, pushed by Patton and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, ran into opposition from some county judge-executives and university presidents, particularly Morehead State President Wayne Andrews. Stumbo said he would like to see the eight public universities held more accountable for college attainment rates.
"The regionals have never really outreached to the extent we thought they would over the years," he said to committee members.
But Stumbo said the bill probably would incorporate an idea from House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, that would put aside some of the grant money for students to be able to attend a regional school outside of Eastern Kentucky if they wanted to get specialized degrees. Stumbo used the example of the award-winning journalism program at Western Kentucky University.
Stumbo said he hoped the grant program could help as many as 1,500 students a year.
Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, cast one of the no votes. He said he was worried about what would happen down the road if the money ran out. Stumbo said the fund would be sound for at least 20 years.
"This is going to become another state-funded entitlement program," Farmer said, comparing it to the KEES grants given to all high school students with good grades. It's running low on money because lottery proceeds are down. "We don't pay attention to mistakes we've made. This will be out there forever."
Robert King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, helped broker the compromise, which he said "comes pretty close" to pleasing the eight college presidents worried about another school coming into an already strapped system.
The council will administer the grant program. The 16-county region consists of Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Lawrence, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Perry, Pike and Whitley counties.