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Original Article:
Kentucky’s Rocky Road (fall 2005)


Kentucky’s Reforms
Produce Mixed Results

May 2008

TEN YEARS AFTER the state of Kentucky approved a set of major postsecondary education reforms, some goals have been met, but others remain elusive.

In a report for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce published in December 2007, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) concluded that the state’s public colleges and universities have made significant gains in the last decade but that the most important reform goal—to boost the state’s economy and to improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians—has not been achieved.

The study by NCHEMS, a higher education policy analysis group, found a lack of coordination between higher education and economic development. Despite major gains by many Kentucky public campuses, the state’s per capita income remains what it was a decade ago—82 percent of the national average.

Although the reforms have not yet had a major impact on the Kentucky economy, they have brought important improvements to individual campuses. Enrollment has increased at all eight public universities, and there has been spectacular growth in the two-year Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

However, there has been little progress in preparing high school students for college work. According to the NCHEMS report, of 100 Kentucky ninth graders, only 65 complete high school in four years; only 37 directly enter college; only 24 enroll for a second year; and only 12 complete an associate’s degree in three years or a bachelor’s degree in six. The “education pipeline leaks at every seam,” the report said.

To deal with part of this problem, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the coordinating body created by the 1997 reform legislation, launched a “double the numbers” campaign in 2007, hoping to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees from 400,000 to 800,000 by 2020.

State spending for higher education was strong in the first few years after the reform legislation was passed but has been erratic since then, ranging from a 0.4 percent cut in 2003-04 to an increase of 8.2 percent in 2005-06.

Financial conditions worsened in 2008. Newly elected Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, faced with a substantial budget deficit, trimmed spending for all state agencies, including postsecondary education, by three percent for 2007-08. Beshear then proposed a budget for the 2008-10 biennium that included a further cut of 12 percent in higher education spending.

A 12 percent cut “would have a devastating impact on the university,” Lee Todd, president of the flagship University of Kentucky, told the campus community.

The legislature agreed and reduced the cuts to three percent. Still, this meant the public campuses had received two cuts of three percent in succession. This amounted to a $20 million loss for the University of Kentucky, which responded by laying off some faculty and staff, by not filling empty positions, and by postponing some projects.

The campus presidents said the proposed cuts would make it difficult to pursue the higher education reform program and asked permission to raise tuition and fees substantially. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which must approve tuition hikes, agreed to some of the increases but reduced others.

Mike McCall, president of the rapidly growing Kentucky Community and Technical College System, asked for a 13 percent tuition and fee increase, but the postsecondary council allowed only a 5.2 percent increase. The council’s action “will have a long-lasting impact on the future of higher education in Kentucky,” McCall warned.

The state’s “Bucks for Brains” trust fund survived the budget trimming, enabling the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville to increase their research capabilities by hiring top scholars, establishing more endowed professorships and expanding lab space. However, “Bucks for Brains” faces an uncertain future because of the state’s financial problems.

The budget cuts have chilled the University of Kentucky’s hopes to become one of the nation’s top 20 research universities by the year 2020. But skeptics already had questioned whether this was a realistic goal, noting that the National Science Foundation ranked the university 65th in federal research and development expenditures in 2006.

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has achieved a degree of cooperation among public campuses that were known for squabbling among themselves. “We’re working together much better now,” said Gary Ransdell, president of Western Kentucky University. All of us (campus presidents) have come to an understanding that we’re responsible for higher education in the entire state, not just in our own regions.” However, the council’s reputation was damaged in 2007-08 by two poorly conducted searches for a new chief executive.

Budget cuts and the postsecondary council’s floundering have caused some to wonder if the postsecondary reform movement is dead. Kentucky “has lost its way,” said James Votruba, president of Northern Kentucky University, whose request for a 9.6 percent tuition increase was trimmed to 8.5 percent by the postsecondary council. Others believe the setbacks are temporary and that progress will resume if and when the financial situation improves.

—William Trombley

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