Study: Building a new public university in Southeastern Kentucky ‘problematic’

Published 11:19 am Tuesday, November 28, 2023

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By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern

Building a new four-year public university in Southeastern Kentucky would be “prohibitively expensive and its long-term viability (especially in terms of enrollment) would be uncertain,” says a study by the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) that was ordered earlier this year by the Kentucky General Assembly.

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Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, sought the wide-ranging study. Among other questions, it was to address the feasibility of expanding access to higher education in Southeastern Kentucky through three means: establishing a new residential public university, acquiring a private university or establishing a residential campus as a satellite of an existing regional public university.

The CPE study found that each of the three options “is in some way problematic.”

No private institution has expressed an interest in becoming public, and acquiring one would be a “complicated legal process,” the study said. Also, enrollment and degree production in existing satellite programs has “declined precipitously” making it unlikely a “new regional satellite would receive adequate resources and attention.”

However, CPE identified other options involving Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) for expanding access to four-year degree programs.

CPE’s “preferred approach” would be making HCTC a stand-alone college or university offering both sub-baccalaureate technical programs and a few bachelor’s programs “in line with area workforce demand.”

However, the study’s draft executive summary, says CPE cannot provide an unqualified endorsement of this option without more stakeholder engagement, risk-benefit analysis and understanding of student demand.

CPE estimates the cost of a 96-bed dormitory at Hazard would be $18.2 million, adding, “The legislature might consider a non-traditional housing option for single parents, veterans, transition foster youth, or justice-impacted populations as traditional students are likely to live at home.”

The CPE determined that the Kentucky River Area Development District would be the best location for an increased university presence because it is a “postsecondary desert,” lacking broad access to a university. Hazard is centrally located in the district at the Hal Rogers Parkway and KY 15.

Another option at Hazard would be enhancing the visibility and impact of the University Center of the Mountains, a collaboration of four year universities working with community colleges, although it would be unlikely to produce the kinds of economic impacts envisioned by Stivers’ Senate Joint Resolution 98.

The resolution cited public universities’ and community colleges’ roles as economic incubators and the “conspicuous” absence of a four-year public university in the region as its struggles to rebound from the coal industry’s decline.

“While CPE endorses an increased four-year presence in Southeast Kentucky, it does so with the following strong caveat: without a comprehensive economic and workforce development strategy, a new university will not yield the desired results for the region,” the executive summary said.

The legislature also ordered CPE to take stock of  the state of Kentucky’s higher education system more than two decades after the passage of the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997, or House Bill 1. The law established CPE and various goals to advance public higher education in Kentucky. Before that, the community college system was under the University of Kentucky.

Stark rural-urban disparities

CPE approved releasing its recommendations and findings during a Nov. 20 meeting. The study, which will be submitted for legislative review Friday, found that over the last 25 years, the state’s public higher education system made “substantial progress” under its current structure. However, if some trends remain unchecked, they “place future educational attainment gains at risk.”

“A central premise of HB 1 was that increased educational attainment would bring about a higher standard of living for Kentuckians in terms of per capita income and workforce opportunity,” the study’s executive summary said. “Kentucky has increased its education attainment rate, but attendant economic gains have fallen short of expectations. Kentucky’s per capita personal income remains around 80% of the national average, just as it was in 1997.”

The study points to stark disparities between Kentucky’s urban and rural regions, which are masked by statewide averages. Urban areas have higher educational attainment levels and higher incomes on average. Though there are some exceptions, Kentucky’s rural areas tend to have lower-skill and lower-wage job opportunities.

“In short, educational attainment alone is not a silver bullet for economic prosperity. Higher education levels are almost always tied to geographic clusters of certain key industries. Raising education levels will not make an appreciable difference if rural residents subsequently leave the area to find better paying jobs. Educators and employers must work together to create the economic conditions and opportunities that will incentivize residents to earn educational credentials that can be put to work in their own regions.”

Progress and challenges

The executive summary cites examples of progress made over the last couple of decades, including significant jumps in educational attainment.

But Kentucky still lags the nation in college-going rate.

Since 2000, “Kentucky’s improvement in educational attainment is among the best in the nation.” Despite enrollment declines, “credential production” has increased, especially among minority students. Graduation rates are approaching the national average.

Sizable decreases in low-income undergraduate enrollment signal college costs are becoming a greater barrier to postsecondary participation.

Degree productivity and efficiency have improved, with total credential production increasing 33.5% at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and 70.4% at public universities since 2011-12 — despite enrollment declining over the last decade. Minority degree production was also up — by 92.4% at public universities and 68.7% at KCTCS during the same period.

However, the rate of Kentuckians going from high school to college (51.5%) is significantly below the national average of 62%. And the college-going rate for low-income Kentucky students is 12.9 points below the state average.

Also concerning, “sizable decreases in low-income undergraduate enrollment,” which is down 38% at public colleges and universities over the past decade. The declines signal “college costs are becoming a greater barrier to postsecondary participation,” the summary said.

Before higher education reform, General Fund appropriations made up two-thirds of funding for postsecondary education, while the remaining third came from tuition and fee revenue. Now, those shares are reversed.

Kentucky’s community and technical colleges are the sixth worst funded in the nation, on a per full-time enrollment basis. Average tuition for in-state students in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System is nearly 50% higher than the national average, the report says.

Governance recommendations

The study also looked at alternative higher education governance models. After a state comparative analysis, Ernst and Young, a third party consultant hired to conduct the governance piece, “found that a state’s higher education governance structure has no discernable effect on postsecondary performance.

“What matters more is effective leadership, adequate funding, academic quality, and other levers of postsecondary governance,” the executive summary said. “Additionally, even similar state boards or administrative agencies exercise their higher education authorities differently and to varying degrees.”

Ernst and Young identified four potential governance options for Kentucky higher education, including creating a “superboard” to oversee both four-year and two-year institutions.

CPE endorsed maintaining the current governance while strengthening its statutory powers. This approach was identified as the option that may yield the most benefits in relation to cost, while increasing transparency and oversight and retaining institutional autonomy.


The legislature also asked CPE to study the feasibility of splitting the Kentucky Community and Technical College System by transferring responsibility for “traditional academic subjects to the regional universities” while leaving technical education with KCTCS.

CPE identified “numerous drawbacks to this plan.” Forcing two-year-college students to begin at four-year university would cost students more and potentially deter them from enrolling in college altogether, the report said. Also, technical students would lose pathways to academic and transfer programs, and comprehensive universities would be unable to offer academic programs as affordably as community and technical colleges.

“Without a more comprehensive evaluation and much broader stakeholder engagement, CPE does not endorse this course of action.”

The study uncovered concerns among stakeholders about the two-year college system, including the large size of the system office, duplicative services across campuses and the proliferation of short-term certificates of questionable value.

CPE recommended an assessment of the role and responsibilities of local community and technical college boards of directors and that the KCTCS system office “be charged with developing a comprehensive employer engagement strategy, a more robust program review and approval process focused on return on investment, and more seamless transfer pathways.”

CPE also recommended that KCTCS receive more state funding and consider pursuing a single accreditation for the system from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

KCTCS Acting President Larry Ferguson said in March that KCTCS was supportive of CPE’s higher education review. Since then, Republican Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles has been named the next president of KCTCS.