Ky. losing ground, losing out as low-income youth can't afford college

Some of the best things in life may be free, as the song says, but higher education is not among them.

It is expensive and time-consuming. Although in the long term a post-secondary degree almost always means higher pay, in the short term it means giving up income to study.

That's why grants are so important to students from families that have few resources to help their children through the lean student years to reach the payoff at the end.

And that's why the annual report card issued by Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education represens such distressing news about the lack of progress for minority and low-income students.

The number of qualified low-income students without grants has skyrocketed, from 68,259 in the 2009-10 school year to 107,552 in 2012-13. No surprise then, the CPE also reported that Kentucky is losing ground in the college-going rate of high school graduates and in associate degrees among low-income students, and has made almost no progress on graduation rates among minority students.

The CPE cites a number of factors behind these unacceptable trends. Ironically, efforts to encourage high school kids to think about college have worked and so more are applying for student aid.

But also, with the state's coffers shrinking from the combined effects of a recession and an outdated tax code, state spending on higher education has been cut by $173 million since 2008.

Tax receipt reports this week indicated that Kentucky's economy may be making a modest recovery but education — and all other — funding will remain dicey until the General Assembly enacts true tax reform.

What we have now is a 20th century code riddled with tax breaks, and more handed out each year based on the magical thinking that subsidizing almost any job will put us on the path to prosperity.

It won't.

That Kentucky needs tax reform is not news. Democrats and Republicans agree on it, although not the details, and multiple studies over decades have made the case for it and solid recommendations about how to fix our tax code.

What's been lacking is political will. As the CPE report demonstrates, that lack of will has consequences. Among them are the tens of thousands of young Kentuckians who have the ability and desire to earn a degree after high school so they can have a better life but who will not get the help they need to realize that dream.

And, when individual Kentuckians can't realize their potential, the state suffers. Lower wages mean lower state revenues which in turn leads to more cuts to education, underfunded pensions, collapsing infrastructure. It is not a winning formula.