Just over a quarter-century ago, then-Gov. Paul Patton and the Kentucky General Assembly ushered in a major overhaul of higher education in the commonwealth.
The Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 mandated a series of sweeping reforms, including building the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville into nationally preeminent research institutions, creating a unified community and technical college system, and giving the Council on Postsecondary Education oversight of all the state’s public colleges and universities.
The overall goal was to increase the percentage of Kentuckians who obtain a college degree or credential to at least the national average in hopes of lifting more people out of poverty and improving the overall standard of living and quality of life in the commonwealth. As part of that ongoing effort, CPE has set an even higher goal to reach by the year 2030.
“Sixty percent of all our citizens in Kentucky need to have that postsecondary credential that matters in order to build the workforce and continuing to build the economy,” says CPE President Aaron Thompson “I’m proud to say we’re at 55 percent.”
Beyond simply counting those who attain a college degree, that goal encourages people to complete postsecondary certification programs in skills that are in high demand among today’s employers. Kentucky Senate President Pro Tem David Givens (R-Greensburg) says those credentials lead to good-paying jobs.
“It has a ripple effect across our state economy,” says Givens. “Corrections costs, medical costs, tax revenues – all those things are positively impacted when we have an educated constituency.”
Recovering from COVID, Addressing Affordability
But recent years have brought new challenges for the state’s institutions of higher learning. The COVID-19 pandemic sent administrators and instructors scrambling to provide virtual instruction to students when schools closed to in-person learning. Then they had to develop protocols for safely reopening dorms and classrooms as the pandemic eased and provide academic and mental health support services to students impacted by the disruptions.
“Socially, emotionally, COVID took a toll on this student body,” says Eastern Kentucky University President David McFaddin. “We have put an immense amount of resources into those wrap-around services to say if you start with us, we’re going to do everything we can to help you finish because that is our commitment.”
Despite the pandemic, McFaddin says EKU has experienced three straight years of enrollment growth and says this year’s freshmen class is the second largest in school history. Half of those students are the first in their families to go to college.
“To see a freshman class with that many first-(generation) students is encouraging,” says McFaddin. “We’re getting that message out there that college is possible.”
Murray State also started the 2023-2024 academic year with a record class – the largest in the school’s 101-year history, according to President Bob Jackson. He says this year’s overall enrollment will be the highest in at least five years.
But Jackson also sees trouble on the horizon. That’s tied to the percentage of high school graduates who opt to pursue a postsecondary education.
“There’s too many students not going to a college or university.” says Jackson. “In Kentucky it’s about 50 percent... and it’s declined for the last few years, so this enrollment challenge is very difficult for all of us.”
Part of the problem, according to education leaders, is the rising costs of attending college, from higher tuitions to increased food, housing, and service fees. Thompson says tuitions at the state schools have gone up, but he says they have increased at rates below the overall inflation rate during the last six years.
State Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) says tuitions and student fees once comprised about a third of college and university budgets, with state funding making up the rest. He says that ratio has flipped in recent years, which he says puts more financial burden on students and their families.
“That’s bound to create a problem, particularly for those who are on the low-income level,” says Neal.
Jackson says many high school students and their families simply don’t know about the wealth of financial assistance available to them or they fail to apply for it.
“There’s too many dollars being left on the table in Kentucky, $53 million last year. Nationally, about $2.75 billion left on the table,” says Jackson. “This would help college-going rates, it would help all of our enrollment at every institution no matter the type.”
Financial aid can also make the cost of attending a private college more affordable for students, says Mason Dyer, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities
“Many of our institutions will go ahead and fill the rest of that gap in institutional aid, so they’re not paying any tuition,” he says.
Dyer says freshmen enrollment at the state’s 18 private, non-profit colleges and universities is up 3 percent this semester. But he says operating an institution that receives no state funding remains a challenge.
“The business model is tough,” says Dyer. “The institutions that have been most successful have found a balance of that relevance – programs that attract students... and alternate sources of revenue that may not be your traditional on-campus students.”
Some school officials, including Jackson, want lawmakers to make completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form a requirement for high school graduation. That could help deliver support to more families in need and get more students enrolled in a college or university. Givens says legislators have debated whether to tie FAFSA completion to a student’s graduation, but he says that could be too burdensome for some. He says another option would be to include FAFSA completion as part of the metrics that go into a high school’s annual accountability score. Either way, Givens says families need to know about the financial aid opportunities available to them.
“If you’ve got a student in your home or in your family that wants to go to college, the men and women in postsecondary education in Kentucky want to help make that happen, so let’s work together to get that done,” says Givens.
Funding for Higher Education
Although state appropriations for postsecondary education are good – about $1 billion in the current budget – Thompson says it could be better. He says funding has not returned to pre-recession spending levels of about $1.2 billion. He contends money spent on higher education is a wise investment.
“For every $1 that the state puts in, they get a $69 return,” Thompson says. “If you don’t invest in higher education... you’ll have more people located in places that cost you money whether it’s Medicaid, prisons, or whatever the case may be.”
2024 will be a budget year for the General Assembly, and Givens says lawmakers are open to allocating more to postsecondary education. But he says that would be a function of state revenues and other needs.
Since 2016, state funding to Kentucky’s public colleges and universities has been allocated based on the institution’s performance in certain metrics, including the number and types of degrees and credentials awarded and degrees earned by minority and low-income students.
Some have criticized this performance-based funding model for putting smaller schools and those serving socioeconomically challenged populations at a disadvantage. Neal says Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution, has been deprived of proper funding for years and the performance-based model only makes that worse. He contends it’s difficult for a small school serving under-represented populations to compete with the much larger institutions like the University of Kentucky.
“We need to build into that model something that substantially takes that into consideration so that those institutions don’t fall off the back end because of the historical deficits they suffered all along,” says Neal.
Ahead of the 2024 General Assembly, a Postsecondary Education Working Group will recommend additional changes to the performance-based funding model. Thompson and Jackson say that will include adding a metric for adult learners served, enhancing the component for low-income students, and giving greater adjustments to KSU and Morehead State University. EKU’s McFaddin says he’s grateful for state investments in performance funding and for the changes to the allocation model.
“There’s a fundamental difference between a regional institution, our HBCU, and then our research institutions,” says McFaddin. “I think at some point we’ll probably have to take a hard look at that and figure out what are the things that we’re trying to achieve with the missions of each of the institutions.”
Some have wondered whether the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended race-based college admissions might also impact Kentucky’s performance-funding metrics on minority enrollments and degree attainment. Givens says he hopes diversity in all its forms from race to income level to life experience will continue to be a key part of higher education in Kentucky.
“And the reason they need to remain is because they impact Kentucky forever,” says Givens. “We’ve changed not just change a life. We’ve changed all the lives that come after that one as a result of that first-generation, low-income, underrepresented minority student finishing successfully.”
Neal argues that the backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is largely driven by fear and changing demographics in the U.S. He says the nation often experiences negative reactions to social advances such as the civil rights movement.
“I think it hurts us all when we try to run away from the fact that we are diverse, that we do need to know about ourselves, we need to understand our history,” says Neal. “In fact, it’s the core of education.”
Addressing Governance and a Higher Education ‘Desert’
Earlier this year, lawmakers unanimously passed Senate Joint Resolution 98, which directs the CPE to review governance of postsecondary education in the commonwealth especially between the regional universities and Kentucky Community and Technical College System. At present, each of the state schools has their own governing board. But Givens says some states have one governing board for all public institutions, while others may have a small number of regional governing boards. The senator says lawmakers have no intention of eliminating any of the current boards of regents and trustees, but says it’s important to examine the effectiveness of the current system of governance.
“It never hurts to open the hood and look underneath,” says Givens.
Jackson says he’s open to that conversation, but he says the governing boards at each school are important given the diverse nature of a state as large as Kentucky.
“We serve the far western part of this commonwealth,” says Jackson about Murray State. “We’re very different than the eastern part of the state, we’re very different than the northern part of the state, so who best knows that region is our governing board.”
Thompson says the consulting firm Ernst & Young has conducted interviews across the commonwealth about the governance issue and will present a report on their findings by December. He says that document will offer lawmakers options to consider for higher education governance going forward.
Another provision of SJR 98 requires CPE to study the possibility of locating a new, public university somewhere in southeastern Kentucky. Although the region has several KCTCS campuses and independent colleges and universities, it has no four-year, publicly funded university.
Givens says many lawmakers, including Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) want to know what impact locating a new school there could have on an area some call a higher education desert.
“It does not indicate we’re going to be voting to put one there, but it certainly causes a lot of great conversations to happen, which is never a bad thing,” says Givens.
As the state’s public and private postsecondary institutions continue the push towards CPE’s goal of getting 60 percent of Kentuckians degreed or credentialed by 2030, McFaddin and Dyer say it’s incumbent upon all the schools as well as lawmakers, and higher education advocates to collaborate.
“So many of us are working together to try to really talk about that value proposition for higher education and what it can mean for a student not just today, not just tomorrow, but for a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of earning,” says McFaddin.
“We’re all in this together,” adds Dyer. “We want to benefit the commonwealth, we want to educate as many students as we can, we want to drive the economy forward.”