Students rally against higher education cuts

Jamie Williams

Students from colleges and universities across Kentucky gathered in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort on Monday to show their support for higher education funding.

The Board of Student Body Presidents of Kentucky organized the rally, which featured both student and governmental speakers. Students decked out in the school colors brought signs and filled the rotunda to hear the speakers. Even school mascots, including Murray State’s Racer One and Northern Kentucky University’s Norse, showed up to show their support.

The rally implored lawmakers to keep the “Powerball Promise” — a promise that guarantees lottery funds are used only for higher education.

“We are students and active citizens who care about higher education in Kentucky, and we believe our legislators and governor should too,” said Jay Todd Richey, president of the WKU Student Government Association and chair of the Board of Student Body Presidents.

Lottery funds are used for state literacy programs, Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarships (KEES), College Access Program (CAP) grants and Kentucky Tuition Grants (KTG). While KEES money is merit-based, CAP and KTG are need-based scholarships.

According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, CAP and KTG funds received almost $30 million less than it should have originally received in 2015. Gov. Matt Bevin has diverted funding from need-based scholarships in favor of funding the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program. These scholarships go to students who work in “high demand” fields such as healthcare and business services.

“If not now, when will you fulfill CAP and KTG at statutory levels?” questioned speaker Zach Sippy, a student at Henry Clay High School.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kentucky is one of eight states to cut higher education by over 30 percent since 2008. Kentucky is also one of three states to cut higher education funding for the past two years in a row. Since 2008, state funding per post-secondary student has dropped by 32 percent.

“I am more than my financial status or social class that may define me,” speaker Hannah Edelen, a student at Northern Kentucky University, said. “When Kentucky increasingly cuts our funds for higher education, we are digging ourselves a hole that leads to stagnation.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear stressed higher education is not a partisan issue, and while many young people may not want to attend college, everyone should at least have the opportunity. Beshear noted Kentucky students who graduated in 2016 had, on average, $32,000 in student loan debt. The U.S. Department of Education reports Kentucky has the third-highest student loan default rate in the country.

“I want to see Kentucky thrive, and there is no question that the key to making Kentucky thrive is education — especially higher education,” Beshear said.

In addition to college affordability, Beshear and other speakers at the rally discussed the University of Louisville’s one-year probation following Bevin’s interference with its board members. Chris Bird, a junior at UofL, used his engineering background to describe the higher education system: the structure may be designed from the top down, but the bottom must be strong enough support the top.

“The further you travel down into a structure, the stronger its members are to hold everything else up above it,” Bird said. “We, all of us students here today, must outweigh the top.”

Bird added while lawmakers have been short on providing answers about UofL’s accreditation, students are still working hard toward a degree that may or may not be valuable depending on the probation’s outcome.

“We keep doing our job,” Bird said. “We keep being students. We refuse to halt our own academic growth.”

Bird went on to ask lawmakers to do their jobs in return. Cheers erupted from the crowd and filled the spacious rotunda.

Several speakers, including WKU freshman Helen Vickrey, mentioned that higher education is not a private commodity but a public good. Vickrey said legislators have been presented with the very opportunities they are taking away from today’s youth.

“Higher education isn’t a market, and whoever sees it that way is corrupt in my opinion,” Vickrey said. “Higher education is a public good for all people, always.”

Carter Hearne, president of the Residential College Association at Murray State University, said there were no words to describe his anger and feelings of betrayal at the higher education cuts. He said if students sit idly by, they are saying they’re okay with their dream programs being cut, their favorite professors being let go and their opportunities being taken away.

“We stand together to secure the blessings of a future for all generations — not just our own,” Hearne said. “This moment will become a movement.”

 Reporter Jamie Williams can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]