Where Would Increased K-12 Education Funding Leave Kentucky’s State Universities?

As the University of Louisville’s student government president, Carrie Mattingly’s job is to be the voice of her peers—and she said tuition increases hurt student wallets. But so do other costs associated with college.

“Housing has gotten to be a really sizable cost,” she said. “If you don’t plan for it it’s really difficult to cover that with a part time job.”

If Kentucky university and college budgets are cut, tuition increases are likely. That’s what historically happens.  Even when there aren’t cuts, schools like U of L increase tuition to support growth and improvements. 

The story of increased costs for college students isn’t new, but what is new is the amount of money Kentucky colleges rely on from students. In a letter sent to state lawmakers this year, university leaders said tuition covers only about 67 percent of the schools’ public revenue. Fifteen years ago, tuition covered less than 40 percent, the letter said.

Push for Education—Through High School  

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has talked a lot about how his new state budget proposal reinvests in education. But it only puts additional money toward pre-kindergarten through grade 12 education, leaving state colleges and universities facing yet another round of cuts.

Beshear said he supports a “cradle to career” concept for education in Kentucky and said cutting higher education was a difficult decision.

“Higher education deserves more support, not less. But there simply is no way to create enough money to make the needed investments in pre-K through 12th grade unless higher education is included in the reductions,” Beshear said in his state budget address.

The budget proposal does, however, include support for higher education initiatives like infrastructure projects that are also much needed, according the university presidents. Beshear is also supporting the Bucks to Brains program and has allocated money to get the Commonwealth College launched.

But the 2.5 percent cut would squeeze about $23 million from college operations budgets, which would likely increase student tuition.

And even though students pay more, much of that money isn’t going to increase available courses or to new equipment.

Instead, the money will go to fixed costs—must-haves such as electricity, employee healthcare and salaries, Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell said.

“If you’re going to have higher tuition, you’d like for it to result in value-addedness to the degrees you produce. Not offset cuts,” he said.

WKU would get about 0$2 million less under Beshear’s proposed cut. Ransdell saod his school has done all it can to squeeze the must-have parts of the budget, including finding energy efficiencies.

“We’re keeping buildings a lot colder in the winter and warmer in the summer,” he said.

The school has also compromised by cutting staff (although they have been able to add teachers during the recession), resources or freezing certain projects. At the same time, K-12 education is slated to get more than $300 million (more than half of that is per-pupil SEEK funding) if you add up all the initiatives that support public education like textbooks and school safety.

“We don’t want to get in a competitive or confrontational dynamic with public education. It’s a partnership,” Ransdell said.

At the same time, some university presidents do believe if it comes down to it, higher education should get its fair share of the education funds.

“Our part of it is equally as important as K-12,” said Michael McCall, president of Kentucky’s Community and Technical College System.

McCall argues higher education represents an important part of the academic spectrum, one that has consequences for the state’s economy.

“Given the preference, I would rather not have had a cut and distribute those dollars a little differently maybe less to K-12 and more to higher education to balance that out,” he said.

Kentucky education officials have also argued for tax reform or expanded gambling to bring in more money, but the General Assembly has not supported such initiatives.

Even with the potential cuts, McCall said his colleges are on track to meet the goals set by Kentucky lawmakers in 1997 (House Bill 1) for the year 2020.

But colleges meeting their targets isn’t the real goal, said Bob King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education. The real goal is to create a public education system that can help its students compete in a competitive, global economy, he said.

“The real problem is that we risk losing an understanding of what will be important for the state and its residents through the 21st century,” King said.

Without financial support, King argued, colleges and universities will not be able to spend money on that extra piece of technology that can help them compete with other institutions. Or they’ll have a difficult time attracting high-quality professors, he said.

“All of these things have an impact,” King said.

At the same time more students are graduating from Kentucky colleges than before and enrollment has steadily increase. Last fall, U of L and the University of Kentucky had their highest freshman enrollments of all time.

How Students React to Carrying a Larger Load

But higher education can and does rely on students like Carrie Mattingly to pay for education—and she said that’s leaving many students either in debt or out of the higher education picture all together. 

Others may just need a break, she said.

“My sense is that a lot of student say they’re just taking a semester off then they take two or three and depending on their situation they either are or aren’t able to come back,” Mattingly said.

That’s why she said she’s reaching out to lawmakers and planning trips to the state Capitol, including one this week.

“There are people in and out of Frankfort everyday advocating for a variety of things so if we don’t go or don’t speak up it’s almost saying we don’t care, which is definitely not the case,” she said.

It’s still early in the state’s budget process. Ransdell said he can’t make any predictions, except that he’s optimistic there are state lawmakers who want higher education funded.

“The state budget is a nine inning game and we’re just in the first inning,” he said.

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama host middays for WFPL and reports on education and other Louisville issues.

@DevinWFPL

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