Op-ed: Kentucky's college funding makes no sense

Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-01 09:47:43-05

Geoffrey Mearns is president of Northern Kentucky University.

Last fall, Northern Kentucky University enrolled more than 2,800 new students.

But did you know that, if we had decided not to enroll or admit any new students, our university would have still received the exact same amount of state funding?

Geoffrey Mearns

Think about that for a moment: if all the progress that our university has made over the past decade just stopped, leaders in Frankfort wouldn’t blink an eye.

That is not a rational strategy for funding higher education.

An Antiquated System

Kentucky invests nearly $1 billion each year to fund postsecondary education, but there is no formula or rational methodology to guide how those tax dollars are allocated to the various institutions.

That is an antiquated system, and it’s time to change it.

Over the past 20 years, NKU has matured into a modern, comprehensive university with outstanding programs from arts to accounting. We have invested in the programs and degrees that employers in our region and our state tell us they want: technology, informatics, computer science, STEM, and, soon, health innovation.

We have demonstrated results: from 1999 to 2014, we increased the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by 84 percent – a rate of growth unmatched by any other public university in Kentucky. And last academic year, we awarded the largest number of degrees and credentials in our history.

Our Students, Families Pay More

Our university has demonstrated that we are committed to enhancing the economic and civic vitality of our community and our Commonwealth.

Now, we need Frankfort to demonstrate that it is committed to our students.

NKU receives just 26 percent of its funding from the state – the smallest percentage of any of Kentucky’s comprehensive universities. That means our students and their families pay more of their higher education costs out of pocket than their peers across the state.

The Council on Postsecondary Education has concluded that NKU deserves at least $10.7 million more in annual state support to bring us up to the state average for the other comprehensive universities.

NKU students, faculty, and staff deserve that additional investment. So does our community.

They also deserve a rational funding model that ties state dollars to specific outcomes, such as degrees conferred, credit hours earned, and graduates in high-demand fields.

Let's Reward Performance

In an era of scarce resources, this approach just makes good fiscal sense. And we know that such a model can work, given the success our neighbors in Ohio and many other states have seen.

Since I arrived at NKU in 2012, I have been advocating for these changes, and I will continue to do so each day.

In the coming months, I believe that we have a window of opportunity to abandon Kentucky’s antiquated funding approach and implement a new model: one that rewards performance, not politics.

Our students demand it, and Kentucky taxpayers deserve it.