For Lexington’s sake, mayor should lobby for higher education

Mayor Jim Newberry was correct in stressing how important higher education institutions like UK, Transylvania University, and Bluegrass Community and Technical College are to Lexington’s future in his State of the Merged Government address Monday.

Many qualified graduates are leaving the city and state, pursuing careers in larger job markets. If Newberry hopes to establish more high-paying jobs in the equestrian, high-tech and health-care fields, as he said in the address, it won’t be enough to make those opportunities available in Lexington — it will also take a population of capable workers qualified for such jobs. That means improving universities to turn out higher-quality graduates.

“We must jealously guard that reputation so that the young people here tonight will have the opportunity to obtain a quality education without having to leave our community,” Newberry said in the address.

This is all well and fine, but the mayor declined to give specific plans on how to continue to improve local higher education. Slogans sound nice, but specific plans work much better in the long run.

One thing Newberry can do immediately is aid President Lee Todd and other education leaders in pushing the General Assembly to keep funding as high as possible for higher education despite statewide budget cuts.

In an address last night, Gov. Steve Beshear said his budget proposal would include cuts for higher education. Such a drop in funding will not aid Kentucky students in their future, it will not aid the state in educating future generations, and it will certainly not — as Newberry wants to accomplish — persuade Central Kentucky high school graduates to go to college locally.

Newberry and Lexington, as well as the state as a whole, have as much invested in the progress of state universities as the students do. Few of the opportunities for economic expansion or high-paying jobs that Newberry desires are going to be attracted to a community where college graduates are sub-par compared to national competitors.

Newberry did note in his address that Beshear said he would financially back two city projects: improvements at the Kentucky Horse Park and runway construction at Blue Grass Airport. These projects are important in preparing the city for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, Newberry said.

That may be, and the city probably will benefit from such projects. But it is also important for the mayor and state leaders to realize that after the world leaves when the games are done, UK, Transylvania and BCTC will still be here and will still be graduating students.

The state of those students’ education should be as great a concern to how Lexington is viewed by the world as the games themselves.