Kentucky’s higher education budget cuts remain among highest in the country

Kentucky State Capitol

Kentucky State Capitol

A new report by the national think tank Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that while many states are beginning to restore their steep cuts to higher education spending since the Great Recession, Kentucky’s cuts remain among the highest in the country and it is one of only three states to continue such cuts over each of the past two years.

Adjusting for inflation, Kentucky has cut higher education appropriations per student by 32 percent since 2008, nearly double the national average. This amounts to the sixth-highest cut in the country over this period, rising from 11th in the CBPP report last year. These cuts amount to $2,771 per student, which ranks the eight-highest among all states.

While most states have begun to increase inflation-adjusted higher education spending in the most recent year, Kentucky is one of 11 states that continued to cut this year, and is one of only three states to do so in each of the past two years. The two-year budget recently passed by the Kentucky General Assembly will further extend a 4.5 percent cut to higher education going forward.

For this year’s higher education spending figures, CBPP factored in Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive order to cut such spending by 2.5 percent in the current fiscal year, which a judge upheld in a ruling on Wednesday amid a legal battle over whether he had the power to do so; however, Attorney General Andy Beshear says he will appeal that ruling to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The CBPP report went on to argue that such higher education cuts across the country have led to increasing tuition rates that disproportionately impact students from low-income families and have escalated the student debt crisis — as students now hold an estimated $1.23 trillion in student debt, which is currently more than car loans and credit card debt combined. Additionally, the report says that unless states begin to contribute significantly more to higher education, such universities will be forced to continue cuts in faculty, courses and student services.

Since 2008, the inflation-adjusted average tuition increase at Kentucky’s four-year colleges was $2,389, a 33 percent increase, while Kentucky students currently have the third-highest student loan default rate in the country.

Ashely Spalding, a research and policy associate at the affiliated Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, says the effects of Kentucky’s most recent cuts already are being felt at colleges, citing the recent announcements that the Kentucky Community and Technical College System will cut 500 employees and Norther Kentucky University will cut over 100 faculty and staff. KCEP argues that in order to stop the continued underfunding of higher education, Kentucky’s lawmakers must reform the tax code to increase revenue so that the state can invest in an educated and skilled workforce.

“As Kentucky continues to cut, we start reversing all the gains made by past education improvements,” said Spalding. “We are sliding backwards, when what we should be doing is investing in our education institutions, which in turn is investment in our communities. We should follow the lead of the majority of states and start increasing funding for higher education again, instead of balancing our state budgets on the backs of students.”

Gov. Bevin had initially proposed an immediate 4.5 percent cut to higher education in the current fiscal year and a 9 percent cut in Kentucky’s biennial budget, citing the need for more funds to go toward the state’s enormous public pension crisis.