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CPE issues recommendation for increasing access to higher education in southeast Kentucky

Izzy Broomfield

The state Council on Postsecondary Education is recommending Hazard Community and Technical College play a key role in filling the need for a four-year residential university in southeast Kentucky.

The General Assembly passed a resolution this year asking the CPE to consider three alternatives to fill a higher education desert in a region that includes Breathitt, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Owsley, Perry, and Wolfe counties. The alternatives outlined in Senate Joint Resolution 98 included building a new public university; creating a new satellite campus of a regional university; or incorporating an existing private university into the public system.

President Aaron Thompson says each option is problematic, and instead recommends Hazard Community and Technical College become a standalone college or university. In a Executive Summary issued by the CPE, Thompson says HCTCS would continue to offer technical programs and a few bachelor’s programs targeted to the workforce needs of the area.

“Even if we built another institution there, Hazard Community and Technical College still would be existing, so you’d be building an institution to serve just four-year degrees," Thompson said in an interview with WKU Public Radio.

The CPE estimates that adding a dormitory at HCTC would cost more than $18 million. Additional construction would be needed for a dining facility and student center to create a traditional on-campus student experience. Still, the CPE says it’s the most cost-efficient way to boost educational attainment in southeast Kentucky.

In another recommendation, HCTC could be allowed to offer select bachelor's programs as as KCTCS institution. However, it would be difficult to prevent other community colleges from seeking to expand their program offerings, leading to "mission creep and intense competition for a limited pool of baccalaureate students," according to the Executive Summary.

"I think each our institutions, whether research, comprehensive, or community colleges, there's still a lot of room for them to serve their mission. To cross-mission this right now is not the direction we should be going in higher education. Down the road, maybe," said Thompson. "I'm very cautious about opening doors I don't feel like we can fully open yet."

Hazard’s central location within the Kentucky River Area Development District, at the intersection of the Hal Rogers Parkway and KY-15, would offer the greatest accessibility to potential students in the wider region.

The CPE analysis struck down three alternatives posed by SJR 98. Constructing a new comprehensive university would be prohibitively expensive, and its long-term viability, especially in terms of enrollment, would be uncertain, according to the CPE.

In the last several years, enrollment and degree production at the area’s regional satellites have declined significantly.

The private universities in southeast Kentucky, including Alice Lloyd, Union College, University of the Cumberlands, and University of Pikeville have expressed little interest in joining the public system, which would be a complicated legal process.

A final report will be sent to state lawmakers by Dec.1 ahead of the 2024 General Assembly.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.