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State status for UPike proposed at bad time

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Editorial: Jan. 6, 2012

ISSUE: Proposal to add UPike to state system
OUR VIEW: Don't add to funding burden now

It’s easy to understand interest in improving educational opportunities in the eastern Kentucky coal fields. Nothing impacts the potential for success in life quite like education. It’s value is immeasurable.

But state funding resources are quite easily measured and often come up lacking. Diverting money to accept, manage and maintain the University of Pikeville as part of the state’s higher education system is ill timed.

It’s proposed as a study to consider providing $14 million in coal severance tax money to UPike to prepare it for acceptance as a public university.

Founded by Presbyterians as Pikeville College in 1889, it currently has about 1,100 full-time students. The immediate influx of money and the long-term commitment of state support would allow the university to reduce tuition from $17,000 to $7,000 a year, according to news reports, thus making a college education far more affordable.

Utilizing $14 million at existing regional universities such as Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities would have a similar impact on affordability. Hazard, which has a state-supported community college, can make its own viable claim for expansion to serve the coal-rich region.

If the state were ready to make major investments in new four-year institutions, Hardin County stands ready to be considered. That’s a goal established by a survey of community leaders and adopted as a study objective for Hardin County United.

Faced with the realities of drastic funding shortfalls, making a long-term commitment to a new university actually threatens funding for all existing public institutions across the commonwealth.

Even if the financial climate were better, the UPike proposal has other hurdles.

Literally hundreds of colleges and universities offer certified distance-learning opportunities that lead to degrees. Online education fits many individual circumstances much better than traditional bricks-and-mortarboard settings. Perhaps $14 million in Internet and technology investments in the region could have a similar impact.

In today’s student-centered approach, state institutions also are partnering to offer fluid transitions and better experiences for college students. One example is the recent agreement between Western Kentucky University and Elizabethtown Community and Technical College that allows students to be jointly enrolled in both institutions and enjoy all privileges and opportunities available.

Barriers have been broken in other ways too. ECTC has a joint agreement with Campbellsville University that shows public-private cooperation is possible when creative energies are focused.

While it may be true that investing coal tax dollars into education makes for a wise economic development investment, growing the state’s obligations by expanding the university network is not smart at this time.

Study it if you must, but legislators should push this idea along for another, better day.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.