Op-Ed

Underfunding pushing UK into bad housing decision

The University of Kentucky's new president, Eli Capilouto, is right in saying UK has bigger fish to fry with the education of the students in Kentucky and that any participation in fund-raising for the Lexington Center project would likely interfere with lobbying for UK dollars.

Kentucky athletics is doing all right, but our educational system is not.

While it is necessary to focus on primary and secondary education, it has to be recognized that we have neglected the plan to make the state university a Top 20 research facility. Capilouto has engaged a company of efficiency experts at a cost of $1.2 million to examine each facet of university operations and recommend how to better use taxpayers' and donors' funds. That seems like a lot of money to me, but I have somewhat limited experience with numbers with that many zeros.

However, I am not a fan of privatization of public affairs, and his proposal to enter into an agreement with private enterprise to remove the existing campus living quarters and build new ones gives me pause.

The agreement also would allow the company to collect all rents from the student tenants for an unspecified period and to manage all campus lodging.

Recent years have seen the Kentucky legislature underfund the university on a continuing basis. The governor and our legislature bear much of the onus for this due to an aversion to reforming the Kentucky tax code to update the state's revenue-generating capacity and to permit more rational budgeting for state needs.

UK has accumulated residence needs estimated at $500 million and total campus needs of perhaps $1 billion.

This did not happen all at once and can be laid at the feet of a state budget process that has pushed problems down the road rather than make potentially unpopular political decisions.

The cost of attending college has skyrocketed in the past decade, chiefly due to the reluctance of state governments to adequately fund higher education.

To be sure, there might be other factors, such as administrative bloat, which contribute to the shortfall, but the point is that college is being priced out of the range of the average middle-class family.

This will only exacerbate the dramatic increase in the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Economic mobility has always been accepted as a given in the United States, but now we are seeing Third World countries with better economic-mobility percentages.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that educational achievement is the greatest leveler of economic opportunity, and it should be of significant importance for a society to maintain a vibrant and prosperous middle class.

The United States is at a pivotal time when we could use more scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and we are falling behind in making those careers available to all.

No doubt, college is not for everyone, but the scientific superiority of the United States will be what keeps our economy flourishing.

And herein lies my unease with privatization of university housing. Private enterprise is in the business of making money and will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. If it does not do that, then it will cease to exist.

So it follows that there might be cost-cutting decisions and revenue-enhancement decisions that might not be consistent with the purpose of the university, which is to educate as wide a range of the population as possible.

The history of using private enterprise to accomplish public or quasi-public functions has been less than stellar due to companies' tendency to cut costs.

Witness the problems with the private management of prisons, food services and educational facilities. And witness the proliferation of private military contractors who are little more than mercenaries.

Time and time again, we have seen transgressions that would not be permitted under state management and regulation.

To assume that any effective oversight that would increase budgetary needs would come from either the university or state government after the fact defies the experience of our past.

Kentucky legislators need to man (or woman) up and take seriously the duty to adequately fund the functions of the state, and tax revenues are part of that equation.

For UK, privatized housing might be the answer, but I would enter that future with an excess of caution.

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