After failing to gin up enough support to make the University of Pikeville a state school, House Speaker Greg Stumbo now proposes using coal severance tax dollars for grants to students from Eastern Kentucky's coal-producing counties who are in their final two years of college.
While this makes more sense than rushing to add another school to the already underfunded state system, the plan is not without flaws.
For instance, if the goal is increasing the number of college-educated residents in these counties as Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton argued in promoting the UPike option, nothing in the grant legislation approved by the House Education Committee Tuesday guarantees the goal will be achieved.
The grants do nothing to help high school students begin college careers, and they would be awarded without any kind of strings that would keep recipients from leaving the region after earning their diplomas.
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In addition, if enacted in its current form, this measure would repeat the mistake lawmakers made when they failed to include a need-based element in the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarships program. KEES money goes to students whose families don't need the help as well as students whose families do need it. The grants Stumbo is proposing would also be an entitlement, available to those who can afford college as well as those who can't.
However, it would be an entitlement program with one notable restriction: Grant recipients would have to be enrolled at a college or university located in a coal-producing Eastern Kentucky county. Since the grants would only be available to students who have completed at least 60 credit hours, this restriction virtually assures much of the money will ultimately go to the private institutions that provide the bulk of the four-year college experience in the Eastern Kentucky coal counties.
One might even conclude this would be an entitlement program for them as well.
No one can reasonably deny that young people in these counties need better access to higher education, nor that the region would benefit from having more college graduates. Only an educated pool of potential employees can attract the economic development that can assure a prosperous life after coal.
But, the proposed program could give money to families that don't need it to fund kids who are already halfway through college and have no plans to stay in the region.
The options for achieving the educational goals need not be limited to adding a new university to the state system or the grant program proposed by Stumbo. Some students in the region may have educational aspirations that can't be met by the colleges and universities in coal-producing counties, and some may need help just making it to college.
For those students, a better option would be a need-based forgivable loan program that allows them to attend the college or university of their choice — in exchange for returning to the region for an agreed period of time after earning a degree.
And it's not too late for Stumbo's proposal to be amended to give them that option.