State higher education affordability ranks low

by Jonathan Greene, –

Kentucky ranks 8th worst among states for college affordability, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The report, Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, measured affordability in terms of average tuition and fees at a public four-year university as a share of median household income. At 21 percent of median household income, the cost of attending college in Kentucky often leaves students with little choice but to take on more debt or give up on their dreams of earning a college degree.

“Kentucky’s college affordability problem is growing as college costs have skyrocketed while wages have not,” said Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP). “According to the report, average tuition and fees at public four-year universities in Kentucky has grown by an inflation-adjusted 38.8 percent. Meanwhile, wages for most Kentucky workers haven’t increased during this time period; even in the years since the economic recovery began in 2010, average annual real wage growth has been barely noticeable.”

Spalding said Kentucky college students are now taking out more loans and incurring larger amounts of debt that the students are unable to payback. She said the state ranks fourth worst in the nation for student-loan default.

Kentucky ranks ninth worst among states in inflation-adjusted state higher education spending with a per student decline of $2,986 between 2008 and 2018, according to the report. This 27-percent decline is higher than the national average cut of 16 percent (or $1,502 per student). And while nationally, the average tuition bill at public four-year institutions increased by 36 percent in that span of time, in Kentucky, it grew even more at 39 percent ($2,878).

One of the consequences of tuition increasing is rising student debt. In 2008, just 52 percent of all Kentuckians graduating from a four-year school had debt, but in 2016, that share had grown to 63 percent.

According to a release from the KCEP, the amount of debt has risen as well: between the 2008 and 2016 school years, Kentucky graduates’ average debt increased by an inflation-adjusted 61 percent from $15,951 to $28,910.

Spalding said the lack of investments in education is hurting the state in multiple ways.

“Investments in education are investments in the economy and, here in Kentucky, we’ve not been making the needed investments to move the commonwealth forward,” she said. “Kentuckians saddled with student debt often face difficulty making ends meet and have to delay buying a home and making other investments in their communities and their own futures.”

In addition to mounting student debt, another consequence of less funding is that universities have cut degree programs and positions.

Eastern Kentucky University cut 153 positions regular positions — 96 current and 57 vacant — and more than a dozen programs in April of this year. Western Kentucky University cut more than 125 positions and Morehead State cut more than 150 positions.

EKU now derives just 26 percent of its operating revenue from state appropriations, according to Kristi Middleton, the university’s chief external affairs office, with the remainder coming from tuition and fees.

Eastern also was the first public university in the state to freeze tuition rates for this academic year. Only one other state university followed, Middleton said.

“EKU’s students have a great financial need and our service region is the neediest in the state by far,” she said. “The EKU Student Financial Assistance office encourages students to only borrow what they need and explore all options including merit scholarships, work study or other funding options. EKU awards students the maximum amount of federal student loans possible, because for many of our students that is the only option for them to remain enrolled.”

In September, the university announced it was expanding its Merit Scholarship Program. It also recently joined the RaiseMe platform, which partners with colleges and universities to expand access to higher education, especially among low-income and first-generation students.

Dr. Brett Morris, executive director for enrollment management at EKU, said the rise in student debt was a great concern.

“We continue to promote higher education as a worthy investment that pays off for our graduates,” Middleton said. “The Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics data shows 75 percent of EKU degree holders go back to work in Kentucky within three years of graduation, the highest percentage of employment among any public four-year institutions.”

To read the full report, visit

Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.