Early this week, Gov. Steve Beshear approved the creation of the Kentucky Coal County College Completion Scholarship Program, a pilot project that awards scholarships to college juniors and seniors, and non-traditional college students in nine of Kentucky’s 26 coal counties. The students must attend either Alice Lloyd College in Knott County or the University of Pikeville, or a Morehead State satellite campus in Floyd County.
Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble noted this week that students in Perry County, despite living in one of the state’s largest annual coal producing counties, are not included in the list of eligible recipients. According to the Energy Information Administration, Perry County produced more coal in 2010 than any other county in the state, other than Pike County.
“I’m very upset, because they’re taking away from our children that need the same thing as any other child,” Noble remarked. “We’ve got a lot of kids that need help, that can get a good education if they could get help.”
Noble is not alone in his frustration. Officials with the University of the Cumberlands, and county judges in Hopkins, Knox and Rowan counties all leveled criticism this week at the program’s failure to include all of the state’s coal counties.
The counties that are included in the project are: Pike, Letcher, Martin, Floyd, Harlan, Knott, Magoffin, Bell and Johnson.
The new program will take effect on July 1 and was modeled after a piece of legislation in the 2012 General Assembly that aimed to increase baccalaureate attainment in the region. The program was also recommended as part of a study commissioned by Gov. Beshear to determine the feasibility of adding UPike to the state’s university system.
According to a copy of the original project proposal signed by Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford, the program seeks to increase education attainment and make obtaining a bachelor’s degree more affordable for students in these nine counties by using millions in multi-county coal severance to offer scholarships. Knott County was listed as the other applicant for the funds.
The proposal was strongly supported by University of Pikeville President Paul Patton, a former Kentucky governor who earlier this year lobbied for the use of coal severance funds to include UPike in the state’s university system in order to lower tuition rates. When that effort fell through, Patton supported a scholarship initiative as a compromise. That legislation also failed to make it out of the legislature.
Patton termed this latest effort to boost education in Eastern Kentucky as a “demonstration program” that is designed to equalize the tuition between state schools like Morehead and Eastern Kentucky University that already receive state funding, and private schools like UPike and Alice Lloyd College where a lack of public funding results in higher tuition rates.
Patton said Perry County was excluded from the proposal because the county’s residents are served by the University Center of the Mountains in Hazard, a consortium of public and private schools that offers bachelors and master’s degree programs locally.
“We really don’t want to compete with them,” Patton said of the University Center of the Mountains. “We don’t want to take students away from there, but the tuition at Hazard for a Morehead program will be a lot less than the tuition would be for any of these programs at Pikeville or Alice Lloyd.”
State Rep. Fitz Steele, a Democrat from Hazard, said on Friday that he thinks if coal severance money is going to be used to offer scholarships to coal county students, then every coal county should be eligible. He added that the same study that recommended using coal severance for scholarships also recommended the formation of regional college centers, much like the University Center of the Mountains, in the Big Sandy and Southeast regions of the state currently included in the scholarship program.
“Why did you have the study to start with when you’re not going to follow the recommendation,” Steele remarked.
Beshear spokesperson Kerri Richardson, however, noted that according to the Department for Local Government, Perry County can still apply for additional funds with another county.
Judge Noble said ultimately he wasn’t sure why Perry County wasn’t included, but the fiscal court is set to meet on June 6, and he expects to bring the issue before the court then. He added that he is also hoping to contact the judge-executive in Leslie County about the possibility of applying for additional multi-county funds.
“That’s also our money they’re going to be giving away,” Noble added. “Our kids need help, too. They need an education.”
Patton said he understands that there has been some criticism about the new program, but a bill that stalled in the state Senate earlier this year would have avoided these issues as it called for every coal county to be included.
“They ought to be upset at the people that didn’t pass the bill we all supported,” Patton said. “There was a bill in the legislature that the House passed that we supported, and would have avoided this problem.”
In the meantime, he added, this newly formed program, which he noted is not a perfect program, will serve as a demonstration on a much smaller scale to determine what works, and he is optimistic that Gov. Beshear will push for a more expended and inclusive program in a future session of the General Assembly.
“I’m convinced that the legislature will pass a bigger program when they can appropriate more money in 2014,” Patton said. “That was the bill that didn’t pass the Senate. Perry County was covered with that bill, we supported that bill, but what we’re trying to do is a demonstration program to see what works.”