NKU looks for huge payday from state

Posted at 9:42 AM, Oct 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-15 09:42:32-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky University could see state funding spike by nearly a third under a plan state education leaders have rallied around that seeks to reverse a seven-year decline in higher education spending.

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees the state's public colleges and universities,  voted 4-0 Wednesday to request $200 million in additional spending for public universities over the next two-year state budget. The plan is the culmination of a yearlong effort to find a consensus plan among colleges throughout the Commonwealth.

If the plan is adopted by the next governor and general assembly, that new spending would still restore only about half of the cuts higher education has suffered since the 2008 recession, said Bob  King, the council's president. Kentucky was one of only two states, along with West Virginia, that cut higher education spending in 2015 while others began restoring funding cut during the recession. 

NKU, with nearly 12,000 full-time students, stands to gain as much as $15 million in new funding atop its current allotment of $46.8 million. President Geoffrey Mearns said he would prioritize long-delayed raises for faculty and staff. He also would invest in growing programs such as the College of Informatics and controlling tuition increases.

Righting a financial wrong

NKU and Western Kentucky University have long been shortchanged with state funding relative to their peers. This budget would bring their per-student funding up to the average among five state universities, including Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State and Murray State.

"It's not moving as substantially as much as I would have liked toward a true performance-based funding model, but I believe that they're going to recognize quite clearly the funding gap for NKU and Western," Mearns said.



United front among competitive universities

The spending plan has the hard-won approval of all eight university presidents after a year of negotiations.

Bob King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Joe Graviss, chairman of the council, said unanimous approval would be a huge boost for getting some or all of the new spending approved by the legislature.

"We always have that hope that the legislature will see the value of investing in higher education," Graviss said. "It's a tremendous return on investment."

Partial victory for NKU's fairness push

As Mearns has told any audience willing to listen for the last two years, NKU has been the victim of Kentucky having no formula to pay for higher education since 2007. In the absence of a formula, all universities have received the same percentage cuts since then regardless of how many students they're educating or how well they're doing at graduating them.

NKU President Geoffrey Mearns

Had NKU chosen this fall not to enroll a freshman class, its funding would not change, he said.

Mearns has fought to tie all state funding to how well schools are performing, but the compromise that won unanimous approval among presidents would only tie $86.7 million in new spending to performance goals such as improving graduation rates and retaining students. The baseline funding of $915 million being spent this school year would not be subject to shifting from one university to another. 

Kentucky invested about $48.5 million in NKU's operating budget this year, which is about $10 million short of the average funding of NKU's four peer universities -- Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Murray State and Morehead State. NKU's total operating budget for this school year is $223.5 million, the majority of which is generated by tuition.

In 2013-14, NKU received $3,682 per full-time student, according to CPE, by far the lowest per-student funding in the state.

Next steps

The winner of the governor's race between Attorney General Jack Conway and Matt Bevin will submit a two-year budget proposal in January to the General Assembly, and the bargaining will commence.

NKU would receive an annual increase of $5.4 million each of those two years to catch it up to the average among five peer universities in the state, and it would have the chance to earn another $2 million a year in state funding depending on how well it performs at improving graduation rates, retention rates and other performance goals.

Mearns said the fight to win the recommended spending increase will be a tough one with competing priorities in the state budget.

"There will be politics involved, and we will be working very closely with the Northern Kentucky caucus and legislators all across the state to urge them to fund the entirety of our request," he said.

Kentucky has slashed spending for higher education over the last seven years in response to the 2008 recession and a state pension crisis, among other budgetary woes.

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