Beshear’s plan for higher education earns our support

Long before this election cycle, it was clear that the affordability and quality of higher education were not among Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s top priorities.

If there were ever any doubts, Fletcher put them to rest in January 2006, when his 2006-08 budget proposal undercut UK’s requested funds by about $7 million. UK students surely would have seen two more years of double-digit tuition increases if the General Assembly had not intervened to restore most of the funding, the Kernel reported Jan. 18, 2006.

Fletcher’s re-election campaign promises are as worrisome for students as his record is. Most significantly, he still has not said he will fully fund UK’s Top 20 Business Plan, which lists how much UK needs in state funding until 2020 to meet the state-mandated top-20 goal while raising tuition no more than 9 percent annually.

By contrast, Steve Beshear — who is running for governor against Fletcher in tomorrow’s statewide election — has promised unequivocally to push the General Assembly to fully fund UK’s top-20 plan.

That’s one of several reasons why Beshear deserves the support of UK students. He has realistic plans to improve the quality of higher education without sacrificing affordability and to keep students in Kentucky after they graduate. Fletcher does not.

Beshear’s main proposal to reduce the financial burden on students is Kentucky First Scholarships, forgivable college loans issued to students by the state. For each year a student works in Kentucky after graduation, a year of the loan would be forgiven.

Not only would the plan give hope to students who feel discouraged by the prospect of high post-graduate debt, but it would help fight the exodus of college graduates who leave Kentucky. Instead of waiting for graduates to come to them, the high-tech employers Kentucky needs to spur economic development would start coming here.

Fletcher’s affordability plan — to freeze tuition increases until the implementation of the Kentucky Covenant program, which would track students starting in middle school and give assistance to those who get good grades — would not be as effective.

The money needed for the overwhelming task of individually tracking every middle-school student in the state would probably do more if it went straight to K-12 schools and colleges instead. Kentucky should not spend its few extra tax dollars finding out students’ career plans at age 12 when they are likely to change greatly by age 18 — especially when schools at all levels are strapped for funds.

Moreover, a tuition freeze may be intuitively appealing, but it will do harm overall if state appropriations do not go up. If Fletcher sought to impose a tuition ceiling on UK without fully funding the Top 20 Business Plan, the university would not be able to hire as many new faculty members as needed, meaning class sizes would increase and educational quality would stagnate. Lower tuition for a worse education is not an acceptable trade.

Beshear’s plan would help graduates in both the short and long terms by forgiving their debt and spurring economic development in the state. Fletcher’s plan would provide students with tuition assistance now at the expense of making their degrees worth less in the future.

Even on issues beyond college affordability, Beshear has Fletcher beat.

Beshear supports letting universities issue their own bonds for money-making construction projects, which would give schools more control over their own finances and priorities. Fletcher does not.

Beshear understands that domestic partner benefits raise the quality of education by allowing universities to attract high-quality faculty and staff, regardless of sexual orientation. Fletcher does not.

Beshear supports opening casino gambling, which would raise hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue that could go toward improving Kentucky’s underfunded school systems. Fletcher does not.

If Fletcher’s record wasn’t clear enough, his campaign positions are: He is comfortable letting state universities remain poorly funded and ranked low for four more years.

Students should not be comfortable with that — or with another Fletcher term. We urge the UK community to vote for Beshear tomorrow.