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Kentucky's Higher Education Funding Cuts Among Deepest In U.S.

piggy bank graduate college costs
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Piggy bank with a graduation mortar board cap concept for the cost of a college education

While many states are still struggling to fully restore funding for public universities and community colleges since 2008, Kentucky is falling even farther behind. The state's funding for higher education has fallen by more than a quarter since just before the recession, after adjusting for inflation.

A new report from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington D.C. compared the amount state governments have spent on higher education per student in the past decade. When adjusting for inflation, the report found Kentucky spent $2,792 less per student in 2018 compared to 2008. The average cut to state funding for higher education nationwide for the same time period was $1,220.

"If we’re looking at cuts to higher education relative to kind of the U.S. average, [Kentucky is] well above the average cut in this time period," said the report's co-author Mike Mitchell.


Compared to other states, Kentucky had the 9th-largest drop in state spending per student. Those cuts are deeper than any other state in the Ohio Valley. 

Most states are spending less on higher education than they did a decade ago, in inflation-adjusted dollars. But while other states have begun to reinvest in recent years, Kentucky is one of few states to make cuts in its most recent budget. 

You can see how Kentucky's funding for higher education differs from the nationwide trend by comparing the graphic below of overall state spending nationwide (from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) to the illustration of Kentucky's cuts over the past 11 state budgets (from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education). Both visuals are adjusted for inflation. 

Nationally, state funding for higher education is tending to rebound, while Kentucky's funding has led a relatively steady decline. 


As Funding Falls, Costs Shift To Students

With state funding on the decline, the cost of college is being shifted to students in the form of tuition hikes. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has been vocal about this fact in its effort to push for restored higher education funding. The state agency is under the governor's office and appoints its own president.

The Council's president Aaron Thompson keeps this graph pinned to the top of his Twitter account:

"As state funding falls, there is pressure put on tuition," Mitchell said.

The report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Kentucky has seen a nearly 40 percent change in the cost of tuition at four-year public colleges, which amounts to an increase of $2,943 per student.

Kentucky's colleges and universities have managed to buffet students from a greater rise in tuition. Compared to other states, Kentucky's average rise in tuition is less dramatic than its loss in state funding. Kentucky ranks 22nd among states for its percent change in tuition, at the same time the state ranked 9th for its percent change in state funding.

Still, Mitchell says rising college costs for tuition, fees, supplies and room and board are burdening students, putting them in tight financial positions and leaving them with greater student debt loads.

"All those things add up and can really consume a lot of the resources that students have on hand," Mitchell said.

Bevin and Beshear Weigh In

During a recent gubernatorial debate, WFPL's political reporter Ryland Barton asked Kentucky's candidates for governor whether they would commit to restoring any of the state's cuts to higher education funding.

"Yes, I will," said Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear. "We have priced higher education out of the reach of so many Kentuckians."

Beshear touted his successful lawsuit decided by the Kentucky Supreme Court that restored $18 million in funding the legislature and Governor Matt Bevin cut from Kentucky's public universities and community colleges.

During the debate, Bevin countered that Beshear did not explain how he would pay for increased funding to higher education. Throughout his campaign, Beshear has said he would support legalizing and taxing medical marijuana and expanding sports betting to generate new state revenue.

"Marijuana and gambling's only going to go so far," Bevin said, suggesting that any new revenue streams would be quickly gobbled up by Kentucky's $60 billion unfunded pension liability.

"Would I love to see more money for higher education? Of course I would," Bevin said. "But the reality is, we have to spend money we have, and we can't promise money that we don't have."

Mitchell from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggested that states might either look to generate new revenue or reduce tax credits and refrain from tax cuts in order to restore higher education funding to pre-recession levels.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.