Legislators should work to increase financial aid

The cost of a college education is already shaping up to be an important issue for the state General Assembly, which wraps up the first week of the 2008 regular session today.

Some of the bills that have already been filed could potentially increase the number of Kentucky high school students who choose to pursue postsecondary education. Other bills up for consideration simply rehash old, flawed ideas and should be rejected by the legislature.

The two bills that so far have the most promise for making college more affordable both call for the merit-based Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship Program to include larger awards. State Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, introduced a bill that would double the amount each Kentucky high school graduate receives, starting in the fall 2008. Meanwhile, Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, filed a similar bill that is more comprehensive but implements the KEES increase over the next 10 years.

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

Rollins’ version of the KEES bill is more appealing because it also addresses funding the state’s need-based financial aid, such as the College Access Program and the Kentucky Tuition Grant.

However, the long timeline for implementation severely undercuts the bill’s goals. By the time the KEES awards go up, tuition will have again doubled, recreating the same problem the program currently faces.

Consequently, legislators should look for ways to merge the two bills so that as many Kentucky high school students as possible can get a boost in financial aid.

While Nelson is on the right track with his KEES proposal, another bill he introduced that would freeze tuition at the state’s public universities does not have the same merits. Nelson argues that the rising cost of tuition is preventing many Kentuckians from getting a college education, the Kernel reported yesterday. The same sort of plan has been rejected by the legislature in the past.

There’s little doubt that this claim is accurate, since even the cheapest state universities are out of reach for many people. Freezing tuition at its current level won’t help, though, when the current level is itself too high. Instead, preventing increases — or tying them to the national rate of inflation, as Nelson’s bill would do — would only deny universities some of the revenue they need to expand and improve.

A tuition freeze would only be effective if state funding increased to cover the difference, an unlikely situation considering Gov. Steve Beshear’s recent dire budget predictions. Without the funding that is expected each year from tuition increases, universities could be forced to scale back hiring, new programs and construction plans.

Instead of taking away UK and other public universities’ ability to control tuition, the legislature should focus on finding ways to give financial assistance to ambitious high school students. The availability of postsecondary education should be expanded, but not at the cost of a devalued degree.

Finally, several members of the state House of Representatives are once again pushing to ban domestic partner benefits. UK and the University of Louisville began offering the benefits last year with the hopes of attracting more high-quality faculty and staff, regardless of sexual orientation. This latest bill is an unfounded attempt to micromanage the state’s universities and, like similar bills before it, should be voted down.