Students in Southern Kentucky will be able to get four-year degrees at Somerset Community College through partnerships with several universities, officials announced Monday.
Leaders in the area have long wished for a public, four-year university in the Lake Cumberland region, saying it would make it easier for people to get bachelor’s degrees and would also boost economic development.
Officials at the Monday morning press conference said discussions are still underway on which universities would be part of the project, and did not release names of the potential partners, though the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University confirmed the discussions.
The nearest public, four-year school to Somerset is EKU, about an hour away in Richmond.
“The one thing missing from the Lake Cumberland region is the option for students to get an affordable bachelor’s degree,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who lives in Somerset.
Rogers said many students stop their education after two years of community college because they can’t afford to go elsewhere to finish a four-year degree, while many who leave Southern Kentucky to get a bachelor’s degree don’t come back.
Creating access to more education opportunities at home is “a key factor to ending the out-migration of our best and brightest students,” he said.
Under the new program, called the University Center of Southern Kentucky, existing universities will offer four-year degrees at Somerset Community College beginning in the fall of 2019. Most students will already have earned a two-year associates degree from Somerset.
Rogers said the state has long had Eastern, Western and Northern Kentucky universities, and now “there is a Southern Kentucky University in Kentucky.”
Still, there is no proposal to establish a public, four-year school in Somerset.
The idea is based on the University Center of the Mountains in Hazard, which offers direct and online classes with 11 public and private universities, including Eastern Kentucky University, Hazard Community and Technical College, Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Kentucky State University, Lindsey Wilson College, Midway University, Morehead State University, Northern Kentucky University, Sullivan University College of Pharmacy, the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health and the University of the Cumberlands.
Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Jay Box said that center has issued more than 2,000 baccalaureate degrees in its 14 years, many to people who wouldn’t have gotten them otherwise.
In a 2013 report on rural education access, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the state’s higher education oversight agency, recommended the University Center of the Mountains as a model of accessible education for rural communities. Because the cooperating universities are already accredited, it appears that the new center will not need approval from the council or the legislature.
Council President Aaron Thompson was not informed of the plan before it was announced Monday. He said he needs to hear more details, but likes the idea “that we are creating more access for students in that neck of the woods. If we can create an opportunity for students to stay in the pipeline, I’m for that too.”
The proposal does not need council approval until it either creates or substantively changes academic programs and offerings, Thompson said.
Box said officials have been working seriously on the plan for about six weeks; neither the potential university partners nor KCTCS wanted to discuss it publicly because so many details still have to be worked out.
“None of us were ready to make any kind of public announcement about it but the congressman was going to be in town and wanted to have a press conference,” Box said. “But let’s say we have lots of interest from public and private universities.”
The university partners will have to get approval for the plan from their governing boards and accreditation bodies, which will take several months, Box said.
At the news conference, Rogers said he’d spoken to University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto about the proposal.
“They have discussed this initiative and how we can best assist Somerset Community College in delivering courses and programs to strengthen educational attainment and respond to workforce needs in the region,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “We look forward to working collaboratively with SCC and our other postsecondary partners.”
EKU spokeswoman Kristi Middleton also confirmed that the Richmond school was part of general discussions about the project.
Somerset can offer classroom space as needed — college President Carey Castle called it a “surrogate campus” — but instruction will also be provided online.
Details on how many four-year degrees will be offered at the community college are still being worked out.
Officials did not release a budget for the program Monday, although presumably student tuition would cover most of the costs. The state’s public universities and community colleges have seen budget cuts of about $205 million for the past decade with no relief in sight.
“Certainly, it’s a much more economical way to deliver programming and degrees in areas where there’s not a close university,” Box said. “In Kentucky right now, with the budgetary problems, I don’t see new universities being built. This is a much more economical way to have multiple partners.”
Box said there is no plan to ask the legislature for additional funding for the program.
Rogers said the program would make a four-degree more affordable in the region because students won’t face extra costs, such as housing at a university.
The universities that sign on to the program will set tuition for their classes, Castle said.
Box said a similar university center would be opening in the Elizabethtown area in 2020.
Somerset Community College, which opened in 1965 and is part of KCTCS, now offers two-year associates degrees, as well as certificates and diplomas in several fields.
It has campuses or centers in Somerset, London, Albany, Liberty, Russell Springs and Whitley City, but the four-year degree program will only be at Somerset.
Counties in the Lake Cumberland region generally have fewer people with bachelor’s degrees.
The percentage of people 25 and older with at least a four-year college degree ranged from 7.7 percent in McCreary County to 14.7 percent in Pulaski County over the period of 2012 to 2016, according to U.S. Census estimates. That compared to 30.3 percent nationwide and 22.7 percent in Kentucky.
In Kentucky, 45 percent of the population has some kind of postsecondary degree or specialized certificate.
State leaders have long set their sights on improving the number of people with postsecondary degrees. The Council on Postsecondary Education has set an ambitious goal for 60 percent of the population to have a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030.