Bevin: Ky. needs engineers, not lit majors

Posted at 9:15 PM, Jan 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-29 21:30:00-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin wants state colleges and universities to produce more electrical engineers and less French literature scholars.

The first-term Republican governor has a workforce shortage on his hands, and he says part of the problem is the public schools are not turning out degrees of the "things people want."

"There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will," Bevin told reporters this week when announcing his two-year state spending proposal. "All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer."

IN DEPTH: How higher-ed leaders want Bevin to boost spending

Bevin's philosophy is more concerned with the degrees rather than student loan debt, which has been a major issue in the presidential race. Bevin's budget proposal includes moving Kentucky to a performance-based plan, where colleges and universities would get state tax dollars based on criteria such as graduation rates of certain degree programs.

A college that graduates more engineers, for example, might get more state funding than one that has more French lit majors.

Thirty-two states have some form of performance-based education funding, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some of them only apply the model to a portion of state funding. Arkansas, for example, allocates 25 percent of its funding this way.

Not so in Bevin's plan.

"The billion dollars of taxpayer money that is being allocated to postsecondary education is going to be allocated based on outcomes, period," Bevin said, adding the plan would be implemented gradually over several years.

His proposal is already generating criticism. A French literature professor at the University of Kentucky noted in an op-ed in Wednesday's Lexington Herald-Leader that Bevin himself has a degree in East Asian Studies. Bevin graduated from Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts college.

Professor Jeffrey Peters said Bevin's plan, and his proposed budget cuts, "risk denying Kentucky students the very course of study he presumably found to be so intellectually and professionally rewarding."

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said it is not right for the government to tell people what they should study.

"The whole goal of public higher education is so that people can decide what they want to be and how they want to educate themselves for their professional lives or their lives for their jobs," Stumbo said.

Republicans have been growing increasingly frustrated with public colleges and universities. Since 2008, state lawmakers have cut appropriations to colleges and universities by $173.5 million. In that same time period, colleges and universities have increased tuition to generate an additional $588.6 million. Higher education officials note that money does not account for financial aid programs, meaning its impact is smaller.

But some Republican leaders say they are frustrated the cost of college keeps increasing and they continue to hear from major manufacturers and other industries that they cannot find qualified workers.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers pointed to a 2012 study by Deloitte that said Kentucky needed nearly an additional 4,000 physicians.

"We get calls consistently, consistently wanting to know from parents why my child can't get into a (physical therapy) program or (occupational therapy) program or radiologist program," Stivers said. "And we're not ramping up in those areas where there is a true need."

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto declined to comment, but in a news release earlier this week, he said the largest university in Kentucky has "a powerful story to tell."

"In the last five years, we've improved graduation rates and expanded affordable access for Kentucky families to the best education in our state," he said. "We will not trim our aspirations. But we do have to find more creative ways to power our progress."