Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 24, 2014

RONNIE ELLIS: Priced out of a college education

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — We got a look at Gov. Steve Beshear’s proposed budget last week. As he’d warned, there are “harmful cuts” in several areas in order to “reinvest” in education or at least the portion funding K-12.

But at a time when President Barack Obama and national pundits talk about the growing income gap between the very rich and the rest of us, Beshear’s budget again cuts funding for higher education.

Those who scream “class warfare” anytime someone talks about the growing concentration of wealth among the top income groups often counter that those at the top got there through merit, hard work and wiser choices — including a better education. (Data suggest otherwise, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

All we ever hear from economic development officials, business leaders and often from the conservatives who defend the status quo is that “the jobs of the future” will require at least two years of post-secondary education or a four-year degree.

Gov. Beshear and Republican U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers recently convened a summit to develop strategies for overcoming poverty and unemployment in southeastern Kentucky and education was one such strategy. The General Assembly’s top two lawmakers — Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg — hail from the area.

Stumbo says one obstacle to prosperity in the region is the lack of a four-year public university and wants to divide the shrinking education funding pie further by making University of Pikeville a public institution. Stivers says we “don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” It’s hard to find many Kentucky lawmakers willing to talk about tax reform or new revenue.

Beshear’s budget, which cuts higher education by another 2.5 percent, “fully funds” KEES Scholarships, money from the lottery which provides “merit-based” scholarship money for those who make better grades in high school. Of course, the students who benefit most from KEES are those from higher income homes. Meanwhile, the budget provides no extra money for “need-based” scholarships for those who can’t afford college.

The cuts continue a decade of declining funding for higher education. In 2000, students and parents paid 32 percent of the cost of an education at a public university while the state covered 68 percent. Today, the percentages are reversed: students and parents pick up 62 percent and the state 38 percent — that’s before this latest 2.5 percent cut.

Dr. Wayne Andrews, president of Morehead State University, noted that MSU’s General Fund budget in 2008 was $49 million and is “now $41 million and falling. We’re putting the difference on the backs of our students.”

Politicians and college administrators often respond by saying rising tuition costs are only “the sticker price” and there is plenty of financial aid available — but much of it is in the form of interest bearing loans.

I frequently encounter young and extremely bright, hard-working college graduates with good-paying jobs who are mired deep in debt from college loans. Some are delaying marriage. Others who are married can’t afford a mortgage. Most will be paying off those debts into middle age. Increasingly, they’re the lucky ones. More and more despair of a college education at all.

Kentucky’s political leaders tout the progress Kentucky has made in education rankings. They pass legislation to require more “academic rigor” in high schools so more students will graduate “college ready.”

But those same lawmakers (most of whom benefited from yesteryear’s low tuition rates) refuse to acknowledge they’re pricing a college education out of the reach of nearly everyone but the wealthy. Sometimes it looks a little like class warfare to me.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.