Kentucky's business leaders are wading back into the education arena with a bunch of good ideas, including a way to guarantee an affordable college education to any Kentuckian who's willing to work for it.
But all the good ideas will be just words on paper unless there's also a rekindled sense of urgency and accountability about improving education at every level.
Reviving that urgency is one of the biggest challenges facing new Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.
It's a good omen the business community is showing a renewed interest in education after being absent from the debate for a while. Kentucky corporations just spent several hundred thousand dollars on an in-depth study of higher education by a state Chamber of Commerce task force.
The task force found the higher education reforms of 10 years ago have produced measurable progress. Enrollments, degree production and university endowments are up. Kentucky has held steady in per capita income, while neighboring Ohio and Indiana have slipped.
But Kentucky per capita income still trails those states. A child entering first grade here is much less likely than his counterparts nationally to come out the other end of the education pipeline with a degree. Kentucky produces comparatively fewer bachelor's degrees for the level of funding than other states.
And for individuals who do graduate, the payoff is less than in other states, because Kentucky lacks the kind of jobs for which a degree is demanded.
Gaping geographic disparities persist in education and income. In 59 of Kentucky's 120 counties, the percent of residents, age 25 to 34, with college degrees is lower than in Mexico.
Affordability also is an obstacle, in fact and perception.
Beshear and the legislature should move quickly on a major overhaul of need-based financial aid.
The chamber recommends a “last dollar” plan similar to those in Minnesota and Oregon. Students who want to enroll in a public university, or community or technical college would commit to paying what they could earn working a full-time minimum-wage job in the summer and 10 to 15 hours a week during school.
Their families would contribute based on what federal financial aid formulas say they can afford. Then the state would promise to make up the remaining difference - at a relatively low cost to the state.
Beshear and lawmakers also must halt what the chamber task force calls “a steady drift away” from strategic budgeting in higher education. This will require re-establishing higher-ed planning bodies.
The link between education and the economy is direct and strong. Kentucky launched education reform from so far behind, it must be extra smart and run extra hard just to stay even.
- Lexington Herald-Leader