FRANKFORT, Kentucky — State officials approved at or near maximum tuition increases at four state universities Friday amid a heated GOP primary for governor where the candidates have lamented the escalating cost of college.
The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education approved a 3 percent hike for the University of Kentucky, 2.9 percent for Eastern Kentucky University, 2.9 percent for Murray State University and 3.1 percent for Northern Kentucky University.
State officials only allow 8 percent tuition increases over two years. Eastern Kentucky and the University of Kentucky each received maximum increases after last year's hikes of 5.1 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Murray State and Northern Kentucky increases both totaled 7.8 percent for the two-year period.
The University of Louisville, the state's other research university, is asking for a maximum increase of 3 percent.
On average, it costs Kentucky residents $9,188 per year in tuition and fees to attend a four-year public college, the 21st most in the country and just above the national average according to a survey from The College Board. The increases mean it will now cost between $42,000 and $44,000 for Kentucky residents to attend the state's two research universities for four years.
But Thursday, Republican candidate for governor James Comer said he could cut that cost in half. He guaranteed the most Kentucky residents would pay to attend the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville would be just $20,000 over four years.
That's only if the students live in Kentucky, complete their degree in four years and stay in state after they graduate to work. If they do all of that, they would be eligible for state income tax credits that would lower their tax bill to make up for the money they had to spend to go to school. Comer said the state could afford this because students would be staying in school less, saving taxpayer money. About 60 percent of students at the University of Kentucky graduate in six years.
"When you can go to school and take out loans for these additional dollars, you're letting 18- to 20-year-olds make very adult level decisions about their debt, and so you start to see them stay in school for longer," said state Sen. Chris McDaniel, Comer's running mate. "We frankly have adopted a mentality that doesn't encourage kids to get out and get in the workforce."
Spokesmen for the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville declined to comment on Comer's plan.
Candidate Will T. Scott wants to take a different approach: Pull all state funding from public colleges and universities and give the money to the students as scholarships. Students would have to maintain a C average or better to keep their money, with chances to reinstate the scholarships if they fall below that level.
"The money would go with Kentucky families and not be controlled by government," Scott said. "I think it's the best investment we could ever make. It empowers Kentucky families to go around Kentucky and pick what schools they want."
Hal Heiner, the former Louisville Metro councilman, said his higher education plan starts with making sure students have good jobs in Kentucky once they graduate college. Spokesman Doug Alexander said Heiner wants to build a "K-14 culture," one that focuses on workforce training for skilled trades in demand at some of the state's big manufacturing plants.
Louisville businessman Matt Bevin told a forum in northern Kentucky last month that he would make sure colleges and universities are funded based on factors like how many students graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees. He said the way the state pays for colleges now is "politically driven and it's wrong."