Higher ed will suffer if students don’t fight proposed budget cuts

Kentucky’s higher-education leaders asked, and Gov. Steve Beshear didn’t listen.

In his budget address Tuesday night, Beshear recommended 12 percent cuts for higher education — a reduction that President Lee Todd and other state university heads warned would be devastating in a letter to the governor earlier this month.

This short-sighted proposal would do grave harm to Kentucky’s 2020 goals, including UK’s top-20 plan and the statewide drive to double the number of college graduates.

We understand that Beshear had tough choices to make, and that some reductions for state universities were inevitable. But the prospect of reversing a decade of progress on higher education should have deterred him from making such steep cuts.

Granted, the governor’s proposal makes some concessions to higher education: It restores bond funding for the capital projects vetoed by former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, and it keeps money for need-based financial aid at the same level.

However, the new bond-funded research buildings will do little good if UK can’t hire new faculty members to use them. Hiring freezes — if not layoffs — are almost certain to result from 12 percent cuts.

Indeed, UK will “have to consider everything — including layoffs, salary and benefit freezes, and program closures — to handle a cut of this magnitude,” President Lee Todd said in a campus-wide e-mail Tuesday night.

And while it is a relief that financial aid funds won’t fall, the money that is there won’t go as far, because universities are likely to respond to large funding cuts with precipitous tuition hikes. “Substantial tuition increases, fewer scholarships, and greater personal debt” could be on the way for UK students, Todd said in the e-mail.

Now it’s up to the General Assembly to do what Beshear did not: heed the university presidents’ advice, and keep cuts for higher education as low as possible.

That means it’s up to students to let their legislators know how important this issue is, through letters, phone calls and e-mails.

We have said it so many times over the past few years: If students speak up and take action, legislators will listen. They need to know a major voting bloc is paying attention.

Apathy has reigned while the funding has been ample. This time, the stakes are much higher: Forceful political action by students and their families could help forestall double-digit tuition increases.

More importantly, public outcry could stop Kentucky from reversing 10 years of progress on higher education.

That’s a goal worth fighting for.