Cutting funding for KEES takes its incentives away

Gov. Steve Beshear seems to have his wires crossed when it comes to making higher education affordable: With tuition on the rise and an ever-increasing demand for financial aid, he has proposed cutting the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship funding by $13.1 million next year.

In difficult budget times, worthwhile programs must sometimes be scaled back. But when it comes to making higher education more affordable — and therefore more accessible — the discussion should not be how much to cut, but how much can be added.

As it stands, KEES represents a contract between Kentucky high school students and the state. Students who receive high grades throughout high school and score well on standardized college-admissions tests will receive up to $2,500 for each year of in-state college.

The program provides two strong incentives for Kentucky students: First, study hard and perform well in high school; and second, when picking a college, look in Kentucky first. Since KEES awards can, with few exceptions, only be spent in state, the program should discourage the brightest students from going elsewhere for their postsecondary education.

When funding is threatened, the KEES incentives practically vanish. Recent high school graduates who had factored the scholarship into their college planning find themselves looking for a new income source. Others who turn down out-of-state schools for the promise of financial assistance in Kentucky colleges second-guess their decisions. And younger students — the high school freshmen and sophomores — perceive that KEES is more of a nicety than a necessity to the state government and stop factoring it in to their decision-making.

For KEES to be effective, it must be funded with an unwavering commitment. And for it to remain relevant as tuition continues to rise at almost all colleges, the payouts need to start increasing, too.

Since its inception in 1998, KEES has used the same award structure, with up to $2,500 each year given to the highest-performing high school students. At the time, the scholarship covered a more significant portion of UK’s tuition. Now, a KEES award for many is only enough to cover a year of books with some spending money leftover.

Increasing the awards may not be feasible this year because of budget difficulties, but funding for KEES and other scholarships should at least be kept steady for the near future. Finding the funding to double scholarship amounts should become a priority of Beshear and the legislature so that every Kentucky high school student can receive up to $5,000 each year.

Regardless of the budget outlook, the KEES academic standards should be raised. This would free up some money to be put toward higher individual scholarships, but more importantly, it would make the program better reflect its name — GPAs of 2.5 and ACT scores of 15, which are the current minimum qualifications for KEES, do not fit the definition of “Educational Excellence.”

The KEES program was created in part to encourage Kentucky high school students to work harder and perform better academically. By slashing the rewards, Beshear will only alienate top students and make it more difficult for others to attend college.