In March, when the National Center for Higher Education Management's study has been completed, the Kentucky General Assembly, under HB 260, will consider the addition of the University of Pike ville to the state system of four-year universities.
Hopefully by then all political motives will have been put aside and the decision made on the basis of the study and the cost/benefit ratio for the citizens in the region and throughout the state. The legislature will be asking itself whether, in these austere economic times, it should add another recurring budget item to the tax burden of its constituents and the coal industry.
When the University of Louisville was added to the state system back in the 1960s, it severely diminished the support for Kentucky's other institutions, and tuition increases followed.
The same result can be expected to follow should Pikeville be added to the state system. The argument that only coal severance tax money would be used to support a state-run UPike is not valid.
As the electric-power industry installs gas turbines — and it is doing so now because of the increased availability of cheaper, clean-burning natural gas — severance taxes from Kentucky's coal industry will diminish. The state should not count on this as an increasing and recurring supply of money.
The coal tax is state money, but if it is used to support UPike, it would be unavailable for other uses. As an alternative, some of this money might be directed to scholarships for students in the region who might not otherwise be able to attend existing universities or technical programs. Such a policy need not be recurring and could be discontinued should the need arise.
Students attending Prestonsburg's community college and technical school, just down the road from Pikeville, are free to transfer academic credits to any of the state's four-year institutions. This is an alternative to adding another college to the state system. Credit transfers from all of the state's 16 community colleges are done on a regular basis, and the policy should be continued. Tuitions at community colleges are less than at the universities.
It is a valid point that this southeastern region has no four-year university; however, it is equally true that the population in the region is sparse and a large state tax investment there might not be justifiable.
Enrollments in Kentucky's private universities grew by 5 percent this academic year; its public universities grew by 1.5 percent and its two-year technical and community colleges by 6 percent. UPike saw its enrollment leap 45 percent this year. So the high cost of enrolling there, as a private institution, did not adversely affect its enrollment.
Tuition increases set at about 11.8 percent of Kentucky's per capita personal income have risen over 20 years from about $1,850 to $7,200 at the four-year universities. At this rate, only the more affluent families are able to send their children to the universities.
The less affluent must contribute their share of state taxes to support the difference in the university budgets without benefit. Arguments that all this is necessary to keep the universities academically and research-grant competitive with other state universities cannot be statistically supported.
If the University of Pikeville is added to the state system, we can be assured its budget, like those of all universities, will grow and recur. There will be no turning back and Frankfort will be looking for more tax money to support it.