Making college affordable focus of proposed bills

Kentucky’s General Assembly kicked off its 2008 session Tuesday with several bills meant to help make college more affordable.

State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, filed an act asking for a tuition freeze at public universities and community colleges in the state because he thinks the cost of higher education keeps many students in Kentucky from graduating.

“It’s important that we help students get the best education available to them,” Nelson said. “And in my opinion the rising cost of tuition is something that prevents many students in the state from pursuing a college career.”

Nelson’s legislation calls for a freeze to keep the cost of tuition the same for the 2008-09 academic year. After that, the bill would cap any increase at the rate of inflation.

“Universities are not going to like having a tuition freeze on their institutions because that money helps make up for the money they don’t get from the General Assembly,” Nelson said in a Nov. 23 interview. “But I think these colleges need to become more budget conscious because right now they are getting the funding that they want, but that may change.”

State Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, recommended similar legislation to freeze tuition for the 2008-10 biennium.

Nelson also sponsored legislation asking to increase the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship Program award amounts beginning in fall 2008.

“The money for the KEES Program comes from funds generated by the Kentucky Lottery, which means there’s money there to help make these increases,” Nelson said.

Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, also wants to double the annual base KEES award amount, but over a 10-year period.

“The maximum award amount is currently $2,500, the same as when the program began,” Rollins said. “The problem is that when the program started, the cost of tuition at UK was $2,500. That number has since doubled.”

Rollins’ bill also increases the funding for need-based grant programs, including the College Access Program grant and the Kentucky Tuition Grant, which give money to students at private colleges in the state.

“This legislation is an attempt to have financial aid keep up with the rising cost of tuition,” Rollins said.

With Gov. Steve Beshear’s recent announcement of an immediate 3 percent budget cut at state agencies and public universities, along with his plans for a 12 percent reduction in the next academic year, Rollins said legislation dealing with postsecondary education institutions is likely to be affected.

“The governor’s budget affects everything we do, this legislation included,” Rollins said. “The good thing about my bill is that it doesn’t call for an immediate double of funds but an increase over 10 years, which will reduce the immediate costs. So it is less likely to have a huge demand on the new budget.”

If passed by the state education committee, the General Assembly will see other legislation that may affect students, including regulations on marketing credit cards and a textbook study.

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, wants to prohibit companies from offering students gifts for applying for credit cards and create regulations for marketing credit cards on campuses.

Nelson will also push textbook study legislation this session that has failed in the Senate for the past three years, he said. The study will look into why the cost of textbooks is so high and the effectiveness of online course material.