The road from Pikeville, Ky., in the heart of the Appalachian region, to the state's capital in Frankfort is long and winding, and is sometimes risky in bad weather.
But it's a path administrators at the University of Pikeville, a private college, will have to get comfortable with as they begin to lobby the state's politicians to make their institution Kentucky's ninth public university and provide it with funding to drive down the price of tuition. The goal, administrators and lawmakers say, is to create an affordable option for students in a hard-to-reach area of the state and improve college-going rates in the Appalachian region.
“Leaders in the legislature have correctly realized that before we can bring that part of the country up to an acceptable level of economic opportunity, we have to bring the educational level up,” said Paul E. Patton, president of Pikeville.
While the goal may be worthy, state status will be an uphill battle. On first impression, the proposal is ripe for accusations of pork-barrel funding and political cronyism, and it comes at a time when the state is slashing the budgets of not just other higher education institutions, but almost all state-supported services.
But if lawmakers decide to support Pikeville, it will be another vote of confidence for an argument that has helped universities get funding even as state budgets constrict – that higher education institutions can serve as engines of economic improvement and job creation for states and regions beyond just employing faculty and staff. Since 2009, universities in municipalities as diverse as New York City  and Lake Havasu City, Ariz.  have secured funding by promising to create an educated workforce and new economic sectors for their areas.
Lawmakers expect a bill to be introduced in the next week. Under outlined proposal, Pikeville would transfer its assets and liabilities to a newly created public university that would be funded in part by a $13 million annual appropriation from the state’s coal severance fund – a tax on the extraction of coal designed to fund economic development activity in the coal-producing regions of the state.
The proposal's main champions inevitably politicize the issue. Patton is a former Democratic governor who pushed higher education reforms in the 1990s and still carries sway in the state capital. The chief backer of the plan in the legislature, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, hails from a neighboring county. Patton said it was Stumbo who approached him about creating a new state university in the eastern part of the state, and through talks the two decided that Pikeville was the best option.
Directing money from the state's general fund toward Pikeville would likely be a political dead end, coming at a time when the state is likely going to be cutting the budgets of its eight state universities and its community college system. Between 2008 and 2011, per-student spending on higher education dropped 20 percent, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Which is why administrators are requesting money from the coal severance fund. But use of that money is also tied up in politics. While half of the severance fund is distributed to coal-producing counties to with do as they wish, the remaining half – which Pikeville is hoping to tap into – is designated for multicounty projects and determined by the legislature. In the past, that money has gone for industrial parks and other regional development projects, often located in one county or another. The money is essentially up for grabs, meaning that if Pikeville secures the funding, another project, possibly in another member’s district, could lose out.
Patton said Pikeville does not need state funding to continue its operations. While the university struggled to enroll students and operate in the black during the financial crisis in late 2008, it has regained solid footing since Patton took over two and a half years ago. Patton said the college tends to serve low-income students, who can get funding through state and federal grants to cover tuition, and wealthy families, who pay full tuition. The campus is financially stable with those two demographics; middle-class students in the area tend to be frozen out.
Others in the state have pointed out that if Stumbo really was looking to a project in his own backyard, he could have asked the funding to turn Big Sandy Community and Technical College, located in his district, into a four-year institution using the coal severance money.
In local media reports, administrators from other Kentucky universities have expressed reservation about the proposal, particularly whether a new campus is actually needed and whether it will steer revenues away from existing campuses. “I don’t think it ought to automatically be put in any particular place in response to a sudden proposal,” said Wayne Andrews, president of Morehead State, in The Courier-Journal , a Louisville newspaper. “And there are many other questions. How will this be funded? And how will it impact other state institutions of higher education?”
Presidents from Morehead, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Louisville all said the proposal should be thoroughly vetted.
Speaking out against the idea might be politically risky for administrators at the state universities. As speaker of the House, Stumbo holds significant sway in the legislature, and Patton is still well-connected in Frankfort. The university presidents also respect Patton, who until Dec. 30 was chairman of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
Pikeville administrators and state lawmakers say the move is about access, not pork. Some have argued that the setup of the public university system is flawed, with Kentucky State and Eastern Kentucky both within about 30 miles of the University of Kentucky, near the middle of the state, and no state institution out in the eastern mountains.
Under the current system, Morehead State University is designated to serve Pike County and much of the eastern part of the state. Officials at Morehead State did not return requests for comment. Eastern Kentucky is also designated to serve some of the Appalachian region. But the main campuses of both are about two hours away from Pikeville. Often, qualified students don’t enroll in those institutions because they don’t want to go far from home, Pikeville administrators said. But enrolling at Pikeville is not an option for many who live nearby, since tuition is about $17,000 a year. State funding would be used to drive down the price to about $7,000. There are several public community and technical colleges out in the eastern region, but Patton and Stumbo argue that a four-year campus is needed.
While providing an option for students in the region is part of the push, another major component is keeping students in the Appalachian region once they graduate. “When our students go off to Morehead and Eastern, they meet people there and they tend to stay there, spewing off an awful lot of the children of the middle class that this region needs if it expects to grow an economy,” Patton said. He said the university’s College of Osteopathic Medicine “is proving the theory that if you teach them in the mountains, they will stay in the mountains.”
The Appalachian region has a very low rate of degree attainment. In the 12-county area surrounding Pikeville, only 9.1 percent of people 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree. The average in the state is 17.1 percent, and the national average is 24.4 percent.
Patton said that if Pikeville becomes a state institution, its sole focus would be on improving degree attainment in the area. “If we receive state support, it will be our entire mission to bring up the educational attainment level of the current crop of students to where the rest of the state is within 10 years, even if that means they wouldn’t necessarily go to Pikeville."
Pikeville does not do a better job of graduating students than the public universities in Kentucky. In 2009, Pikeville's six-year graduation rate was 36.6 percent, compared to 36.9 at Eastern Kentucky and 39.9 at Morehead State. All three serve populations of students that often enter college without adequate preparation.
Republican lawmakers in the Senate have expressed trepidation about the proposal. Senate President David Williams, a Republican, told a Kentucky television program that an improved economy needs to be the legislature’s focus at the moment, and that other areas of the state could just as easily meet the question of need. "I think you could make a tremendous argument that there needs to be one in Somerset, at Somerset Community College, if you look at those counties down in that area. All these private colleges across the state, whether it be Centre or Lindsey Wilson or Campbellsville or Union or the University of the Cumberlands, all have tuition that's much higher than the public universities."
In 2006, the legislature, led by Williams, attempted to appropriate $11 million in coal-severance funding to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg to create a pharmacy school and scholarship program. The plan was struck down by the State Supreme Court which said the state could not appropriate money to benefit the Baptist-affiliated institution.
While Pikeville is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, it would drop that affiliation and become a state institution if the legislature were to accept the proposal.
Stumbo’s spokesman said the speaker plans to introduce a bill within the next week, to get the process started. The legislative session began Jan. 3 and runs for 60 days.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, has put out a request for proposals for a consultant to study the need for such a campus, the capacity of existing colleges to meet such need, and the financial resources required to make Pikeville successful as a state institution. That proposal has a March 15 deadline, though Patton said he hopes the consultant will finish its work by March 1 to give lawmakers enough time to consider the proposal.
Patton and James L. Hurley, vice president and special assistant to the president, spent most of last week in Frankfort meet with legislators, and plan to spend a lot of time at the Capitol over the next few weeks trying to win support for the proposal.