Investing in higher education in Ky.


Does this story line sound familiar: The governor and General Assembly, strapped for cash in a tough economy, keep pulling money from a program vital to Kentucky’s economic development? In the process, they shift more of the burden onto future generations.

If you think we’re talking about Kentucky’s pension system, you’re wrong. We’re talking about its system of higher education.

As with the pension crisis, higher education hasn’t always been a convenient place to find dollars to balance a budget. Beginning with the passage of the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997, the state increased spending on state colleges and universities in every budget through 2007-2008 – a total of 33.2 percent.

For those who like to see a return on investment from such spending, here’s a few ways to measure the results: In 2000-09, Kentucky ranked first in its rate of improvement in six-year graduation rates among state universities. It also showed the second-highest improvement rate in the percentage of adults 25-44 with an associate degree or higher.

But beginning in the middle of the 2007-08 budget, state spending on higher education has been dropping ever since – to the tune of a cumulative 15.6 percent.

For those who like to measure the impact of such dis-investment, here’s what happened to those same measures: From 2009-13, the improvement in the graduation rate slowed to 41st in the nation; improvement on getting more adults with degrees swung to 24th.

The Council on Postsecondary Education and the state’s nine university presidents have all lined up behind a budget request that no doubt will seem daunting to an administration and legislators dealing with the pension crisis and a host of other spending needs.

What’s interesting in their proposal is that, in the parlance of the new administration, they are putting “skin in the game.” The plan they present requires each school to achieve certain metrics in the first biennium or lose the additional funds in future budgets. It’s a creative proposal that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly – even in the current budget climate.

The alternative to restoring some of the funding cuts from higher education in recent years is continuing to ask students to shoulder more of the cost – putting the education they need for the jobs of the future out of reach for more of them or adding to the debt load of future generations.

Many of those who advocate that Kentucky needs a more business-friendly climate point to states such as Indiana or Tennessee as our competitors for jobs. We could easily surpass them in one key measure of workforce readiness – the percentage of the population with at least an associate’s degree. Kentucky ranks 44th in the nation by that measure – 33 percent of the adult population with a degree. But our neighbor to the south is at only 33.8 percent and ranked 42nd. Indiana is a mere two steps further up the ladder at 40th and 34.5 percent with a degree.

While we’re scrambling just to line up with Tennessee and Indiana on such supposed economic development checklist items as right to work, why not jump ahead in preparing our workforce to meet the demands of employers? One clear start on doing so would be to invest in our higher education system – and your future workforce – again.

Louisville Courier-Journal

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