Killing our universities

The financial future of Kentucky’s colleges and universities is ominous, a recent study warns.

It’s one thing to refuse expanded gaming or legalized marijuana to bring in new money, but instead Kentucky’s leaders seem to not understand that the future of this state depends on the quality of our workforce — the quality of our universities.

Even Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development agency, acknowledged that our lagging workforce was a major reason Louisville didn’t make the final 20 cities bidding to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

And experts warn we’re in jeopardy of falling further behind.

The recent report from Moody’s says Kentucky universities are at risk of losing student enrollment due to rising tuition costs, the state’s socioeconomic struggles and a declining number of high school graduates.

Instead of trying to stanch the wound, Gov. Matt Bevin and Republicans, who now control all of state government, are more interested in building aluminum plants with taxpayer dollars than they are in funding our public universities. The latest budget requires a 5-percent cut to UofL’s expenditures, along with a 3.5-percent tuition increase for undergraduates and 3.8 percent for out-of-state students.

This comes on top of past cuts and tuition hikes in the years following the economic crash in 2008.

While Kentucky cut higher education funding, the universities made up the difference by raising student tuition. The state slashed higher education funding by 21 percent ($190 million) between 2008 and 2017, while tuition increased by 50 percent between 2008 and 2013, and then 13 percent between 2013 and 2017.

The Moody’s report warns that these institutions can’t continue to rely on students to pick up the funding gap simply by raising tuition.

Kentucky cannot cut its way to prosperity.

It cannot pass the burden to families and students.

The state must spend more on public education… at all levels.

Republicans have ignored fact-based expertise and analysis in favor of partisan politics, conservative ideology and personal political ambition. Moody’s professional financial analysts are telling elected officials that we can’t afford to not invest in public education. They explain that we need to expand the brand and appeal of Kentucky’s colleges to attract more students. According to the report, “Efforts to improve marketability and brand profile often require large strategic financial investments in capital improvements and academic programming.”

Instead, Bevin wants Kentucky universities to eliminate programs, making the schools even less attractive to potential enrollees. He said, “Frankly, interdisciplinary studies or interpretive dance… there aren’t jobs out there. Not in Kentucky, not enough to justify having programs that are staffed by highly compensated faculty teaching a handful of students skills that are not needed in the marketplace.”

It’s easy to blame interpretive dance for your failing policies, Gov. Bevin, but financial and industry experts are clearly stating that you are wrong. Our universities should be expanding academic programming and enrolling as many prospective interpretive dancers as they can. A liberal arts education is valuable. Didn’t you choose East Asian studies as a major?

Kentucky may be running out of options. It’s clear that the current leadership isn’t willing to face the realities. “But where is it going to come from?” Bevin asks. “Every dollar we put into that is going to come from somewhere else that nobody wants to see less money in either. It’s important for us to be realistic with the fact that we have a finite amount of capital.”

This is a lie. Capital is everywhere. Just ask Colorado, which The Denver Post reported collected upward of $247 million in taxes and fees revenue from marijuana sales in 2017.

Bevin won’t give more than lip service to legalizing marijuana even for medical reasons. And he won’t take leadership on expanded gaming or sports betting in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Louisville’s own Churchill Downs Inc. is working with the Golden Nugget Atlantic City to get into online gaming and sports betting markets in New Jersey, according to the Courier Journal.

But Bevin is just unwilling to sacrifice his political future to make any of that happen. The same for Republicans.

They’re all wrong.

We must invest in public education. And, if it takes marijuana, expanded gaming or raising taxes, we must accept these realities.

We have a chance to change the leadership in Frankfort this fall and elect a new governor next year. Vote for the candidates who promise to invest in Kentucky public education.