Politics & Government

Stumbo links new money for higher ed to making UPike a state school

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg

FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo has not given up on his goal of making the University of Pikeville a state institution.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Monday he would not support increased funding for higher education in Kentucky "until there is a resolution of equity for kids in Eastern Kentucky."

He said that means improved access to higher education for students in Appalachia, and "the best option, in my opinion, of doing that, is making UPike a four-year state school."

He acknowledged that he would be open to discuss other options, such as providing more state scholarships for students in the region to attend UPike, "but its joining the state system is my personal preference."

The issue of UPike becoming the state's ninth public university, Stumbo said, "will come up again and again, in my opinion, until it is realized."

The hope of Stumbo and others of that happening quickly was dashed in this year's lawmaking session.

Nearly a year ago, UPike President and former Gov. Paul Patton pushed the idea of making UPike a public school, financed with the proceeds of coal severance taxes.

Patton argued that the move would improve the region's low college attainment rate, which lags the rest of the state. He said U.S. Census data showed that only 18 percent of southeastern Kentucky residents ages 25 to 64 have a two-year college degree or higher, compared to the statewide rate of 29.8 percent.

When the idea of adding a college to the state system met opposition in this year's General Assembly, Patton agreed to a compromise that would use the money for scholarships to increase college attainment in the region. But the compromise bill failed in the Republican-led Senate.

In response, Gov. Steve Beshear authorized spending $2,050,000 in the fiscal year that began July 1 and $2,250,000 the following year in coal severance tax receipts on a pilot scholarship program for students in nine Eastern Kentucky counties. The scholarships benefit students attending the main campuses of UPike and Alice Lloyd College, or certain extension campuses of Morehead State University, Lincoln Memorial University, Lindsey Wilson College and UPike.

Stumbo said he recently talked to Patton about the scholarship program, "and they are relatively pleased with how it's going, but certainly more needs to be done."

Stumbo also said he realized that available tax dollars for state programs are scarce.

"The state needs money to address its pension problem, elementary and secondary education, and the federal Affordable Care Act," he said. "For higher education to get new dollars, it may require a major initiative like new tax revenue or gaming."

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which coordinates Kentucky's higher education system, "is committed to ensuring that all Kentuckians have equitable access to attend college and succeed," spokeswoman Sue Patrick said.

"We look forward to working with Speaker Stumbo and other members of the legislature on this important issue," Patrick said.

In December, Beshear authorized a study on the feasibility of adding UPike to the state's university system.

The study's report, submitted in March, lauded the idea of more scholarships but said expanding UPike to its capacity of 2,000 students would accommodate less than a quarter of the additional 4,900 students that the region needs each year to reach the state college attainment average.

In addition, the report said that because 85 percent of UPike graduates come from Pike, Floyd or Letcher counties, the move would have a limited effect on the entire 16-county region.