Politics & Government

New student fee would help fund building spree at Kentucky's community and technical colleges

Classes were underway at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College's new Newtown Campus at Fourth Street and Newtown Pike on Thursday. Future projects by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System might soon be partially funded by a new student fee.
Classes were underway at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College's new Newtown Campus at Fourth Street and Newtown Pike on Thursday. Future projects by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System might soon be partially funded by a new student fee. Herald-Leader

The Kentucky Community and Technical College System hopes to enact the first mandatory student fee in its 17-year history to pay for a proposed $145 million bond issue for construction projects at its 16 colleges statewide.

Gov. Steve Beshear pushed the idea as part of his budget proposal Tuesday, calling it a "unique" public-private partnership. Under the plan, KCTCS would for the first time have authorization to issue agency bonds, which must be repaid by KCTCS instead of the state's General Fund.

The bond would pay for about 75 percent of each project. Each college would then have to raise the other 25 percent — a total of $49 million statewide — from the community.

The new student facilities fee would be $8 per credit hour, said KCTCS President Michael McCall. For the average student, who takes about 9 credit hours, that would be $72 per semester.

McCall, who has been working on the plan since last year, said he feels the fee is fair since students will benefit most directly from new facilities.

"It's not a large increase that students would have to absorb; they get a lot for it," he said.

Tuition at KCTCS schools this year is $144 per credit hour. However, Beshear's budget proposal also includes a 2.5 percent cut for higher education, so KCTCS may also have to raise tuition rates to help fund operating costs next year.

Since 2008, tuition at KCTCS has increased 19 percent as state funding dropped 17 percent.

McCall said KCTCS has not gotten any state-funded construction money since 2006.

The system of community colleges and technical schools was created in 1997 under Gov. Paul Patton's higher education reform act. Previously, the state's community colleges had operated under the University of Kentucky's leadership.

KCTCS enrollment has fluctuated in recent years, going from 52,795 when the system was created in 1999 to a high of 108,302 in 2011. Enrollment dropped to 92,365 this school year.

As enrollment increased over the past decade, many local officials and business leaders have clamored for new buildings at KCTCS' campuses across the state, McCall said.

"The community says, 'We need this project.'" Let's really see how strong that commitment is," McCall said. "Now I've taken them for their word, they need to match that."

The proposed bonds would provide most of the funding for a range of new projects, including $18 million toward expanding the new Newtown campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, $21 million for a new Maysville Community and Technical College campus in Rowan County, and $16 million for a new classroom complex at Southcentral Community College in Bowling Green.

BCTC President Augusta Julian said she supports the proposal, as it could fund a new $24 million health sciences building on the school's new campus at Newtown Pike and Fourth Street, where BCTC will relocate much of its operations over the next few years.

"We're extremely excited the governor has been willing to consider this innovative approach to increasing facilities," she said. "We have this incredible opportunity with the property at Newtown."

Still, even with $18 million provided by bonds, it will be difficult to raise the other $6 million.

"It's quite a challenge for us to raise money in Lexington because we're kind of late to the game," she said. "UK and the private colleges have been at it a long time. But we have a good story to tell, and we'll be working hard to tell it."

The proposal has only just been announced to students, leaving many questions still unanswered, said Ebony Nava, student government president at BCTC.

"First, I wonder if we really need it (new buildings), since our enrollment keeps going down," she said. "I also think it could be a hardship for our students."

A lot of students receive financial aid, Nava said, but they need every bit of that money to pay for tuition, books and housing.

"Things aren't really adding up to me," said Nava, who plans on sending out a student response email to see what other students think about the plan.

At Southcentral Kentucky CTC in Bowling Green, President Phillip Neal said the proposal could provide $16.5 toward a new classroom complex that would replace aging buildings unsuited for 21st century instruction.

"This is really a landmark proposal for KCTCS as a whole," Neal said. "To be able to build a state-of-the-art classroom complex is something we desperately need to train more students."

Neal, who must raise $5.5 million, said he will reach out to community leaders surrounding each of Southwest's six campuses.

"I think it's a great opportunity to work with our folks across the region, and show them how to invest in making a stronger system," he said.

P.G. Peeples, president of the Urban League of Lexington, is chairman of the KCTCS Board of Regents. He said he did not believe the proposal would create a troublesome burden for students.

"Our students already get the best value in town," he said. "They've thought that through very carefully. This is a great opportunity for construction growth without any General Fund money. We're very, very excited by the opportunity to do this."

The plan still has to survive a long legislative budget process, and it's not clear how it will fare in the Republican Senate, where leaders have already expressed concern about the budget's high level of borrowed money.

Jodi Whitaker, spokeswoman for Senate President Robert Stivers, said Republican leaders are aware the bond proposal would require a new student fee, but haven't yet received specific details about Beshear's plan.

"We will have to wait until we see his proposal before we can comment further," Whitaker said.