Turnabout in the Mountains

March 15, 2012

Paul E. Patton, the former governor of Kentucky, knows firsthand that politics can sometimes get in the way of even the best idea, not to mention a controversial one.

It’s a lesson he’s learning again as president of the University of Pikeville. Since the start of the year, he has led an uphill fight to make the private institution the state's ninth public four-year university.

Patton had hoped to use money from a tax on coal and natural gas extraction designed to fund economic improvement initiatives in the rural Appalachian region to make the college -- in that eastern part of the state -- more affordable without taking resources from the state’s other institutions. But in the push, Patton and his allies in the legislature have faced charges of pork-barrel politics and cronyism.

Last week lawmakers scrapped the plan in the face of political opposition. Instead, Patton and his legislative allies are now pushing a measure that would use the same money to fund graduation initiatives and scholarships to help students in a 16-county region fund their junior and senior years at either public or private institutions. Under the new plan, students who graduated from a high school in the region and completed 60 credit hours at either a four-year or two-year institution would receive up to $6,000 toward tuition at a private institution, which would essentially bring prices in line with those at public institutions. Smaller scholarships would also be given to students choosing to complete certain programs at public institutions outside the region.

“Functionally, this solves the problem we identified, which is the dearth of affordable bachelor’s degree options in the region,” he said in an interview. The revised bill passed the state House by a wide margin and is expected to be taken up by the state Senate soon.

The initial plan faced steep opposition from several corners, including Wayne Andrews, president of Morehead State University, which is designed to serve the much of the area Pikeville hopes to serve. Andrews testified to the legislature in February that the area in question was already well-served, and that adding another university to the state’s rolls would siphon off money from an already shrinking pool. State universities in Kentucky are likely facing a 6 percent cut in next year's budget.

While Pikeville’s money would have come from the coal severance fund in the beginning, it would probably have drawn on state funds in the future, particularly as revenues from coal production decrease. While Morehead State was the most vocal objector, none of the other universities spoke out in favor of Pikeville’s plan.

County executives in the Appalachian region, who could potentially pull from the coal severance fund for their own infrastructure and economic improvement programs, also opposed the measure.

“These kinds of decisions have always been political decisions,” Patton said. “It’s easy to document how this region is underserved. But this region is less than 10 percent of the population. The other 90 percent already has their universities.”

Patton and lawmakers behind the bill, who include House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who represents the county next to Pikeville, had argued that the Appalachian region is underserved by the current layout of the state university system. Students who want to remain in the Appalachian region do not have an affordable option. The region's private institutions tend to be more expensive than are state universities, particularly for middle-class students who do not qualify for significant amounts of aid. There are also several community colleges in the area, but they offer only two-year degrees.

While 49 percent of the students who went to college in Kentucky attended a four-year state institution, only 17 percent of college students from the Appalachian region did. Most -- about 64 percent -- ended up at community colleges. Appalachian students were also more likely to go to private institutions -- 19 percent compared to 13 percent in the public as a whole.

Most of the state’s four-year universities are clustered in the middle of the state. Kentucky State University and Eastern Kentucky University are both within about 30 miles of the University of Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky, which is responsible for serving much of the Appalachian region, is a 2.5-hour drive from the city of Pikeville, and Morehead State, which serves other parts of the region, is a two-hour drive. Both have some branch campuses in the Appalachian area, but they do not offer the same range of programs as a comprehensive university. No interstate highways run through the area, making travel to and from the state universities time-consuming.

When the plan came up at the beginning of the legislative session, Governor Steve Beshear commissioned a study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which is due out today. Since the session wraps at the end of the month, Patton said that the timeline effectively killed hopes of getting the measure through this session.

Three other private universities besides Pikeville would benefit from the plan: Alice Lloyd College, Union College, and University of the Cumberlands.

In addition to the scholarships for students attending private institutions, the plan would also provide some funding for students enrolling in programs at institutions outside the region if they were in a program that was not available at any of the private colleges, such as engineering. The revised plan would also set aside money to inform high school students in the region about higher education options and the importance of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

Patton said none of the major groups that opposed the first iteration of the bill have spoken out against the revised measure. In his testimony before the House, Andrews backed the idea of using the coal severance money for student aid purposes.

Patton said that while the plan has been scrapped for this session, he and legislative allies have not given up on the idea of turning Pikeville into a state institution.

Because he knows politics will play a major role, and that making a strong case isn’t always enough, he said he hopes the governor, who cannot run for re-election in 2015, will back the plan in the next session. If not, Patton said, he plans to highlight the issue in the next gubernatorial race. “It’s going to be the most important thing for the people up here,” he said.

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