Hanna McIntosh, a senior at University of Pikeville, said she is earning a four-year degree with help from a pilot scholarship program for students in coal-producing counties.
McIntosh, 22, a communications major from Phelps, said she was encouraged that a House Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would make the program permanent so more students can get a four-year degree.
McIntosh said for her, the scholarship "was a blessing" and said her mother is seeking the scholarship to continue her nursing studies.
Under House Bill 2, sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, multicounty coal severance tax dollars would provide scholarships to college juniors and seniors, and help them complete a four-year-degree.
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"One of the problems that we have in Eastern Kentucky is that we export not only our coal and our minerals but we've exported a lot of our talent," Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told the committee.
Gov. Steve Beshear recommended in his biennial budget that $2 million each year in coal severance tax money be used for the Kentucky Coal County College Completion program.
That would double the scholarship money in 34 coal-producing counties, Stumbo said.
The Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority would administer the scholarships.
Participating schools would include Alice Lloyd College, Brescia University, Kentucky Wesleyan College, Union College, University of the Cumberlands, and University of Pikeville.
Stumbo said that the bachelor's degree attainment level in counties in southeastern and Eastern Kentucky is significantly lower than the state and national average. He attributed that to the lack of a four-year public university in southeastern Kentucky.
The pilot program started by Beshear in 2012 was a compromise stemming from a fight over making the University of Pikeville a state university. Supporters said taking UPike public would improve college access to southeastern Kentuckians. Opponents said it would take financing from already-suffering state universities.
In the pilot program, 540 students have participated, and the average scholarship was about $2,700, Stumbo said. So far, he said, 91 students have graduated with four-year bachelor's degrees. "Those are 91 kids who will stay in this region," he said.
The bill's co-sponsor State Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, who had also sponsored similar legislation in 2013, said, "If they are educated in the region, they stay in the region."
Under the legislation, Students need to have 60 credit hours before applying for the scholarships, which range from $2,300 to $6,800 a year. Unless the courses they need aren't offered in their region, students must attend postsecondary institutions or extension campuses in designated coal-producing counties. The counties include those in Western Kentucky.
Stumbo's bill also would provide grants of as much as $150,000 to help community and technical colleges in coal-producing counties to enhance student support services and program offerings.
Developing a well-educated work force and seeing economic growth in coal-producing counties is one of the goals of the legislation, lawmakers said Tuesday.
McIntosh said she and her mother, Lillie Dotson, planned to stay in the Pikeville area after they complete their undergraduate degrees.
"It has truly been a positive thing for this community and this university," McIntosh said.