From chamber's lips to legislature's ear

What if all the 13-year-olds in Kentucky knew that they would be able to afford to go to college?

Would it change the way they think about their futures? Could that, in turn, transform Kentucky's economy?

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which is all about building wealth, is proposing a way to make college affordable for every qualified applicant.

It's a good idea that deserves consideration by lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear for a couple of reasons:

■ Kentucky is no longer a low-tuition state. Even with substantial increases in financial aid in recent years, many low-income families reasonably assume that they have been priced out of higher education.

■ There's a near perfect correlation between a state's education levels and its per-capita income. Kentucky lags near the bottom of both.

The problem with the chamber's plan is how to pay for it.

This would be much less of a problem if lawmakers would open their minds to transforming the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship into a more strategic vehicle for educating Kentuckians.

KEES awards about half the proceeds from the state lottery — $88 million last year — to more than 60,000 students, based on their grades and college entrance exams.

KEES spending and recipients rise every year. But the number of full-time Kentucky students enrolling in public universities and community colleges declined by 1 percent from 2004 to 2007.

It's hard, then, to argue that KEES is advancing the state's goal of doubling its college-educated population by 2020. Most of the KEES recipients would go to college with or without the program.

The rest of the lottery money goes for college aid that's based on financial need.

Kentucky denied need-based financial aid to 36,759 qualified applicants in 2007 because there wasn't enough lottery money to go around.

The chamber is proposing a different approach, similar to programs in Minnesota and Oregon, to close the gap between what students and families can afford and the cost of going to college.

Students would pay an amount equal to what they should be able to earn from a full-time summer job and part-time job during the school year. The family's contribution would be based on federal financial-aid guidelines. Scholarships and aid provided by the university or community college would be counted.

And then the state would make up the difference between the sum of those three contributions and the cost of attending a public university or community college.

Chamber president David Adkisson presented the plan to a legislative committee last week without any cost estimates or proposals for paying for it.

The chamber is on record favoring an increase in the state's cigarette tax while opposing more general tax increases.

Barring an astounding economic turnaround, it's hard to see how Kentucky could afford this good idea without some kind of tax increase, restructuring KEES or both.

But considering the link between education and the economy, Kentucky also can't afford to put higher education beyond the financial grasp of any of its people.