Pension costs threaten higher-ed affordability

Eastern Kentucky University is one of six regional universities that could be greatly affected by the current pension crisis.
Eastern Kentucky University is one of six regional universities that could be greatly affected by the current pension crisis. cbertram@herald-leader.com

As Gov. Matt Bevin and the General Assembly prepare to grapple with a pension crisis that only deepens with every passing day, Eastern Kentucky University is far more than a casual observer.

Certainly we are looking out for the almost 1,500 EKU employees who participate in either the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS) or the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System (KTRS). But much more is at stake.

You only have to look around your own city, town or county and consider the teachers and school administrators who educate your children, the nurses who tend to your health care, the first responders who provide for your safety. Many of those individuals and countless others in similarly vital professions are EKU graduates.

Yes, the pension crisis potentially affects nothing less than our ability to prepare graduates for careers that daily impact the quality of life in communities across the commonwealth.

There are many paths forward, but the status quo is not a sustainable option when one considers that EKU’s contributions to KERS and KTRS are expected to increase a total of approximately $12 million over the next year.

All told, pension contributions at comprehensive universities and KCTCS institutions are expected to increase by $47.2 million, or approximately 70 percent, over the next year.

Imagine if your home mortgage suddenly jumped from $1,000 a month to $1,700 a month — now you get the idea.

That’s just public higher education, and it comes as state appropriations to EKU and our sister institutions have steadily declined in recent years to the point that only 27 percent of our operating budget is now state-funded. Public school systems and municipalities are dealing with similar pension-related issues.

This is why, as sustainable long-term solutions are debated, comprehensive pension reform that also provides short-term relief must be sought. If short-term needs are not addressed, money that could be better spent on academic programs and services that directly impact the lives of our students and on outreach programs that enrich communities throughout our service region will continue to be siphoned away to shore up an ailing pension system.

And that’s to say nothing of the soaring costs of a college education.

At EKU, we are doing our part in trying to keep the cost of a college degree within reach of the average Kentucky family. In fact, we became the first institution to step out from the pack and announce a tuition freeze for the 2018-19 academic year — a calculated, informed risk that we believe will help us retain students and continue to attract more of Kentucky’s best and brightest to our campus. But the larger goal, as Bevin has correctly pointed out, is to keep those young people in the commonwealth after they graduate.

We call EKU “Kentucky’s University” for a reason. The vast majority — nearly 90 percent — of our undergraduates call Kentucky home, and 76 percent of Eastern alumni are employed in their home state shortly after graduation: the highest percentages among all public, four-year institutions in the commonwealth.

It is imperative that our outstanding public higher-education system remain competitive, in both quality and affordability, with adjacent states. We must be able not just to graduate students, but prepare them holistically to become leaders in their professions and communities.

That means modern equipment in our science laboratories, but it also means opportunities for personal growth. It means the financial means to retain and recruit outstanding faculty, but it also means opportunities for their professional development.

So all of us at EKU will continue to engage our elected leaders in open dialogue that seeks to fairly and equitably resolve this pressing issue and keep us moving forward — at EKU and other like institutions, and in communities throughout the commonwealth.

Michael T. Benson is president and professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University.