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King: Economic Recovery is Not Congruent with Kentucky's Higher Ed Funding

Rob Canning, WKMS

Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Bob King says Kentucky’s recent strides in economic recovery have not been reflected in its funding for higher education.

The CPE was at Murray State University Tuesday evening as part of its series of town hall debates to gather input on the new five-year strategic initiative plan.

An audience of about 100 educators, business leaders and local and state government officials were present for the forum in MSU's Freed Curd Auditorium.

One of the key challenges outlined in King's presentation was finding alternative funding.

State Funding

Since the 2008 recession, Kentucky colleges have had to cut budgets and raise tuition in light of reduced state appropriations. Although some state experts say the Commonwealth is now on an economic upswing, King says colleges are still struggling to maintain quality programs with reduced funding levels.

"Unfortunately there are other challenges that the state is meeting and they are bigger than the more revenue that is coming in," said King. "So higher education is going to have to fight for a reasonable new investment. We’ve been talking with our campus presidents and frankly what we’d like is to have at least a portion of the funding that’s been taken away restored.

"The campuses have learned to do remarkable things with dramatically reduced resources and increased costs but there's a limit to what we can do and I think with some modest new re-investment we can regain that notion of improving faster than anyone else in the country."

MSU is currently in the midst of developing its own strategic plan.  University President Bob Davies says the two plans differ in scope but have a similar goal: appealing for higher funding.  

“I think the part of this plan and specifically part of the plan Murray State has developed is building and fortifying the case of why you should invest in higher education, why you should invest in these areas and how additional funding would offset the other issues," said Davies. "Right now we're talking a lot about the student debt issue. It's something that I take to heart but the reason why students have substantial debt is that tuition has gone up, and the reason it's gone up is that state funding has declined." 

King says the new plan will be used to guide state legislators on where money is being spent and where it’s needed most.  

"Where money is expended, how much money we ask for, to measure whether or not we're making progress," said King. 

The General Assembly is expected to discuss the issue in the upcoming session.

Kentucky Rising 

King says he was excited for one new CPE initiative which he called Kentucky Rising. He says it could change the way teachers are compensated and schools are governed as it looks at early childhood, K-12 and higher education as a complete system rather than separate units.

“Right now they function independent of each other," said King. "And we know that each of the pieces and the work we do affects the other pieces. We need to treat them as this interdependent, integrated system.

"Second, what we're doing is recognizing that if we really want to be competitive, we have to be able to compete with the best in the world and so we're looking at the highest performing systems in the world and comparing what they do with what we do, seeing what the gaps are and begin the process of developing strategies, filling those gaps and surpassing the best. It's a very big complex process. It's not going to happen overnight, it's going take ten years, but you got to start sometime so we're planning on starting."

Student Motivation 

On the subject of student success, some educators in the audience expressed dismay that students needed to improve motivation, engagement and maturity towards getting the most out of their academics. King says administrators can work to nurture that drive through more intensive curriculum.  

"We're not challenging students enough, we're not demanding enough," said King. "They [the students] are not reading enough, they're not writing enough, they're not spending enough time on task developing the skills to be effective when they get out. So, yes, it takes commitment from our students but it also says to the administrators and the faculty we need to demand more of our students that they'll respond to."

Athletic vs Academic Funding 

One audience member observed that academic programs in Finland have some of the top success rates in the world but also spend considerably less on school-sponsored athletic programs instead incorporating students in sports clubs. King says finding the appropriate balance between academic and athletic funding is one that administrators may need to examine. 

"It depends on where you are, there are only a handful of schools in the country, UK is one of them, Louisville is another, where the revenue that the athletic programs generates for the university exceeds the costs of the programs," said King. "For those schools, it makes sense. But for schools the size of Murray, or Eastern, or Western, at some levels the athletic programs don't generate enough to cover their expenditures. Those expenditures have to be picked up somewhere else and typically coming out of the rest of the budget. So, you have to ask yourself 'is the subsidy that is provided from the rest of the budget worth the value of the entertainment?'"

Davies says funding for athletic programs should be monitored, but those programs do have positive boons that extend beyond just generating revenue. 

"With athletics at an institution like Murray State, there are some very positive attributes: student recruitment, GPAs, retention rates, persistence to degrees and alos the graduation rates among athletes is actually very high. So there are things that we can learn from that. I'm not saying athletics is the driving force, nor should it be, but it does play a role." 

The CPE wraps up its town hall forums at Northern Kentucky University next week.

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