Kentucky families watched their kids’ tuition rates — and student loan debt — rise over the last decade, but the commonwealth’s public universities say they’re determined to make up for state budget cuts and skyrocketing pension costs without becoming unaffordable.
But higher education is already out of reach for many Kentuckians after years of tuition hikes at cash-strapped schools, according to senior policy analyst Ashley Spalding at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
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“We’re among the worst (in) funding cuts, and we’re actually among the worst in college affordability … if you look at the cost of college compared to what people make,” she said. “Incomes are not going up in Kentucky and tuition is — and we don’t have high incomes, on average, in Kentucky.”
Since the 2008-09 academic year, the annual tuition and mandatory fees in-state students pay to study at the state’s eight public universities and 16 community and technical colleges have collectively increased at an average rate of 4.5 percent per year, according to data from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
But repeatedly increasing students’ expenses to make up for state budget cuts and other funding gaps isn’t a realistic or desired solution, higher education officials say.
“The idea we can keep going up this path of raising tuition, especially in places like our community and technical colleges — it’s just not reasonable,” said Aaron Thompson, the postsecondary education council’s president.
Of Kentucky’s public universities and colleges, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s average annual tuition growth rate was lowest, at 3.9 percent, and Morehead State University’s was highest, at 4.8 percent, between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years, according to council data.
At the University of Louisville, annual tuition and fees totaled $7,564 for full-time, in-state undergraduate students in 2008-09. By 2018-19, those costs had climbed to $11,656.
The University of Kentucky’s tuition and fees also jumped from $7,848 to $12,245 during that same period, while Eastern Kentucky University’s rose from $6,080 to $9,596.
At $5,310, KCTCS’s tuition and fees were the least expensive for the current term, though higher than the $3,630 it cost to attend KCTCS schools in 2008-09.
Council officials emphasized that the majority of Kentucky students don’t pay full price for tuition, noting that they have access to significant financial aid from the state and from individual universities.
However, Spalding said tuition is just one of several financial challenges students face. For example, they also have to cover basic life expenses, such as housing and food, and some of them have families to support.
Tuition increases can deter people from starting — or sticking with — college, especially if they’re low-income or students of color, Spalding said. And Kentucky already has been ranked as having the nation’s fourth-highest rate of student loan defaults.
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“A lot of times it’s costly to stay in school, and they might end up leaving with debt, and it’s hard to pay that back,” she said. “As a state that continues to disinvest in education, college is out of reach for more Kentuckians.”
Higher education isn’t just getting more expensive in Kentucky.
Nationally, there has been a 36 percent — or $2,651 — increase in average annual published tuition since the 2008 academic year, according to an October 2018 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Kentucky, the increase totaled 38.8 percent for public, four-year colleges.
Kentucky’s tuition hikes have been close to the national average in recent years, even though government funding for higher education has been cut more deeply there over the last decade than in most other states, Thompson said.
U of L raised tuition by around 4 percent for the current academic term, but only after a prior, year-long freeze on its rates. UK also increased tuition, by 2.5 percent, for in-state students, while EKU froze tuition at its 2017-18 level.
For EKU, where 65 percent of students are low-income, first-generation or both, “access and affordability” are paramount, said David McFaddin, its vice president of engagement, regional stewardship and government relations.
“As a school of opportunity, we are very sensitive to the cost of education,” he said.
EKU is grappling with major increases in its pension contributions because the state’s retirement plans are deeply underfunded, but McFaddin said it’s trying not to staunch the financial bleeding with tuition hikes. Instead, it’s focused on producing new revenue by growing enrollment in popular programs like nursing and aviation.
Likewise, UK is expanding its slate of online classes and trying to enroll and retain more students overall, said Eric Monday, executive vice president for finance and administration.
Monday noted that the 2.5 percent tuition increase for in-state students this fiscal year and a proposed 2.4 percent increase for fiscal year 2019-20 would collectively be UK’s lowest tuition hike in 30 years.
U of L is also working to grow (and maintain) its student body, according to Chief Financial Officer Dan Durbin.
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He said the university cut about $20 million from its current budget but gave its colleges a way to make some of that money back if they submitted proposals to improve their recruitment and retention of students, with about $5 million being distributed among the best ideas.
Attracting more students and getting them to graduation day is especially important for public universities as Kentucky phases in a new way of funding higher education that’s based, in part, on how they perform on metrics related to student success.
In an era where budget cuts are commonplace, planning ahead is vital for universities.
UK gets about $60 million less from the state today than it did a decade ago, Monday said. That lost money could have paid for more faculty salaries and student scholarships, he acknowledged, but UK is focused on the future.
The university launched a five-year financial plan in 2018 that runs through fiscal year 2023, Monday said. To meet its goals, the school needs an extra $40 million per year and is trying its best to avoid relying on tuition hikes to fill that gap.
“We’re not just going to raise our price,” he said. “We’re going to be creative in how we … solve these problems.”
Similarly, U of L will start crafting three-year financial plans instead of budgeting for one year at a time to help officials make decisions that benefit the school in the long term, Durbin said. It has to balance the need to keep students’ fees from becoming too expensive with its responsibility to properly fund the programs they need to succeed.
“I kind of view that as the last resort,” he said of further increasing tuition. “We’re trying to make it as affordable as we can.”
Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; email@example.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/morganw.