Thanks to House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former-Gov. Paul Patton for bringing attention to Eastern Kentucky's future and its desperate need for affordable higher education.
All of Kentucky should care about this because all of Kentucky pays for the region's poverty and lack of opportunity. We pay directly when our taxes go to support people and places unable to support themselves. And we pay indirectly when a potential investor looks at Kentucky's demographics and shies away.
We don't know whether converting the private University of Pikeville into Kentucky's ninth public university, as Stumbo and Patton propose, is the best way to fill this unmet need. A lot of questions would have to be answered before another four-year institution is added to the already underfunded system.
But Patton and Stumbo have hit upon one indisputably great idea: Use severance tax revenues now designated for regional economic development to educate residents of the mountain coalfields. (It wouldn't be a bad idea in the western coalfields, either.)
The state collects severance taxes when coal, natural gas, oil and gravel are extracted and processed; the money is divvied out into a number of state and local funds. Coal severance is expected to generate $326.7 million this year.
Part of the severance money is returned to help producing counties prepare for when the mining ends. Nothing would do more to lift coal counties from their poverty and over-reliance on a single industry (and government checks) than a better educated workforce.
But Pikeville does not necessarily have to become a public university for the severance money to help mountain residents pursue higher education.
Stumbo says a $13 million annual appropriation from the multi-county severance fund would allow Pikeville to lower its tuition from $17,000 to $7,000, on par with Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities, without affecting General Fund revenues that go to the public universities and community colleges.
Putting $13 million — or, better yet, more — into tuition grants, financial aid and scholarships for residents of designated counties could accomplish much the same purpose. There could even be a grant for those who agree to work in a designated county after graduation.
Gov. Steve Beshear is hiring a consultant to lead a study of the Pikeville proposal. The study should examine a range of alternatives for increasing college graduates.
It's been said many times that if Kentucky had a do-over, it would spread out its public universities rather than cluster four of the eight in or within an hour's drive of Lexington.
Patton and Stumbo believe a state university in far southeastern Kentucky would attract and keep educated people and transform the long-suffering region.
We can't argue with the transformative effects of education or its power as an economic driver. To prosper and attract educated people, the region will also have to tackle other challenges such as corruption, environmental degradation and poor health.
Presbyterian missionaries started a college in Pikeville 123 years ago. Patton became its president in 2009 and brings missionary zeal to recruiting and supporting students who can't afford to leave jobs and home to go away to school.
Infusing Patton's drive and determination into outreach, student recruitment and retention by Morehead and EKU would go a long way. Any consultant who figures out how to do that would be worth a lot of money.