Higher ed detour: What took Kentucky down road of educational haves, have nots?

How did we get here from there?

Hope was in the air in Kentucky in the spring of 1997 when, in a special session, the legislature passed the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act.

The ambitious goal was to change the landscape and give young Kentuckians the same shot at getting a college degree as kids in any other state in the union. The goal was more than individual opportunity. With an educated work force, Kentucky could rise from its historic place near the bottom of most socio-economic measures.

The act set out a strategic plan, backed by increased funding, with goals for individual schools and the system. Students who couldn't afford or weren't ready for the nationally competitive research programs at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville could go to regional universities or community colleges.

It's hard to believe that anyone in those days envisioned that, 17 years later, Kentucky would have the highest community-college tuition rates in the region. Or that the University of Kentucky would be spending the largest share of its scholarship dollars to attract out-of-state and outstanding, but financially secure, Kentuckians.

Did anyone envision that some outstanding students from upper-middle-class homes would actually make money going to school while less stellar, but capable, students from struggling families would have to take on burdensome debt to get a degree?

The number of students in the state's public higher education institutions has jumped 20 percent since 1997, but no one would have foreseen that state support for higher education, in inflation-adjusted dollars, would be lower now than then.

Most amazing, though, is that no one — not a governor or a General Assembly — declared that the lofty vision of 1997 was being tempered or abandoned.

Somehow, it just happened.

As Linda Blackford outlined in her story last Sunday on UK's use of scholarship funds, many factors have changed public higher education in recent years:

■ National rankings that evaluate schools based on the standardized test scores of their students have led to bidding wars with scholarship dollars for the most talented students, whether they need the money or not.

■ Declining state revenues — a result of economic recession and the legislature's stubborn refusal to modernize our tax code — have translated into deep funding cuts, which in turn brought tuition increases and a push to attract out-of-state students who pay much higher tuition.

■ The vision of strategic planning across all of public higher education has not materialized. Rather than a coordinated system of community colleges, comprehensive universities and research universities, we still have intramural political infighting for limited state support, public and private dollars, students, programs and recognition.

It's a system that creates "a greater divide between the haves and have-nots," in the words of state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, whose district includes UK.

Certainly, this isn't where we wanted to be.

Kentucky's leaders have a choice: Acknowledge we've abandoned the ambitions of 1997, or work in earnest to close that divide.