Caleb Lowe graduated from Alice Lloyd College in the tiny Eastern Kentucky town of Pippa Passes last year with less than $4,000 in student loan debt, thanks to a state scholarship that helps students from coal-producing counties complete their degrees.
“That’s almost unheard of,” said Lowe, a first-generation college graduate from Pike County who is now pursuing a graduate degree at Lincoln Memorial College in Tennessee.
During his junior and senior years at Alice Lloyd, Lowe received a total of nearly $14,000 from the Coal County College Completion Scholarship, a state program which he said “makes (college) attainable for middle class families in the area.”
When Lowe heard that Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed state budget would eliminate funding for the scholarship, he felt devastated.
“Something like this really helps so much,” Lowe said. “It’s just awful to think about it not being there.”
The program provides financial aid to help students from coal-producing counties complete their bachelor’s degree. Applicants must have completed 60 college credits and be a permanent resident of one of the state’s 33 participating counties in Eastern and Western Kentucky. They can attend any college or university in Kentucky, though scholarships are smaller for schools located outside the 33-county area.
The scholarship was created in 2014 to boost low college-attainment rates in Kentucky’s coal fields, where the collapse of the coal industry has put thousands out of work since 2011.
Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said it is crucial to continue the coal scholarship if Eastern Kentucky hopes to raise its college-attainment rate, which lags the state and national average.
The percentage of adult Kentuckians with any kind of college degree, including specialized certificates, is 45.3 percent, but that number drops to 36 percent in the Appalachian region of the state, according to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. The national average is 52.9 percent.
“If you want to impact Eastern Kentucky, you have to raise the college-attainment level, which will improve the high dropout and illiteracy rates,” Jones said Tuesday during a speech on the Senate floor.
In the 2016-17 school year, about 690 students qualified for the scholarship. Each received between $2,600 and $7,800, depending on which school they attended.
“The value of this program really can’t be overstated,” said Brian Strunk, Executive Director of Development at Union College in Knox County.
This year, Strunk said about 80 students at Union College received the scholarship.
At the University of Pikeville, a private college with more than 100 students who received the scholarship last year, biology junior Nathan Pray said his reaction to the news was “disbelief.”
To me it doesn’t make sense that you’d punish the kids who come from a place that doesn’t really have the educational opportunities that other parts of the state have.
Nathan Pray, University of Pikeville student
“To me it doesn’t make sense that you’d punish the kids who come from a place that doesn’t really have the educational opportunities that other parts of the state have,” said Pray, a scholarship recipient.
According to the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, the program spent about $2.6 million during the 2016-17 school year.
Money for the scholarship comes from coal severance taxes, which have declined rapidly in recent years as the coal industry tanked. Revenue from the tax dropped from $310 million in 2011 to $100.5 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
“In the face of severely limited coal severance funds, Gov. Bevin determined that the basic services provided by local counties need to be prioritized over certain coal severance earmarks,” said Woody Maglinger, Bevin’s press secretary. “As a result, nearly $8 million in coal severance funds will be returned to the areas where it is mined.”
The statute authorizing the scholarship says the program cannot receive money from the state’s General Fund.
The program is one of 70 that would lose funding under Bevin’s proposed budget. Administration officials said cutting these programs would save the state $85 million a year, less than one percent of the state’s General Fund budget. The Kentucky House and Senate will use Bevin’s proposal as a guideline as they craft a final version of the budget this spring.
University of Pikeville Director of Admissions John Yancey said officials there are hopeful that some money will be included for the scholarship in the state’s final budget, but that school leaders are discussing how to accommodate students who rely on the scholarship if it disappears.
“We’ve got students here who are counting on those dollars,” Yancey said. “We’re trying our best to make an education in Kentucky affordable, and certainly those dollars have helped tremendously.”
Reporter Linda Blackford contributed to this story.