Last Friday morning, I had the great pleasure of attending Commencement at Eastern Kentucky University at the invitation of President Michael Benson. Actually, I attended just one of five of the commencement celebrations, the one for the school of arts and sciences. What a thrill to celebrate with over 700 new “eternal colonels.” It was also a pleasure to meet other leaders at EKU including Craig Turner, chair of the board of regents, John Wade, dean of the college of arts and sciences, and Dr. Janna Vice, provost. The inspirational commencement address was provided by graduating student, Ms. Jenna Sehmann.
It was also a thrill when one of the graduates stopped to greet me as she walked across the stage, introducing herself as Shelby Williams, 2014 graduate from Berea College, and now holder of an EKU Master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology. Seeing Shelby reminded me of how closely linked Berea College and EKU really are.
Both strongly emphasize serving students from Eastern Kentucky, both serve a large number of first generation students, and we both celebrate the first generation graduates by asking them to stand for applause during commencement. Both have very fine student concert choirs and other vocal groups, but EKU has a steel band that played the recessional. Together we provide access to higher education in a state where only 21% of adults hold a college degree, so we both have a LOT more work to do to ensure the commonwealth has an outstanding work force and all of its citizens have the opportunity to pursue the careers that interest them and to live lives of fulfillment.
So, despite the differences in our size and the fact that one of our two institutions is private college and the other is a public university, enjoying support from the commonwealth, we have a lot in common and a shared task, providing an affordable education to those who need it. With the large number of young people (and also some adults) who desire a college education in Kentucky, both our institutions are essential, so while I am very proud that Berea offers a no-tuition education to all the students it admits, there is no question that our commonwealth urgently needs the public university system to be affordable and accessible.
Berea College enrolled 194 students from Kentucky in the Fall of 2015, about 45% of our total of 432 incoming students. Each year about 45,000 students graduate from Kentucky high schools, and around 60% of them (27,000) plan to attend college. Berea and the other private schools in Kentucky are doing their utmost to educate the young citizens of the Commonwealth, but serving all these students requires supporting large, public universities like EKU.
From that point of view, recent developments in Frankfort regarding funding for the public universities in our state are very discouraging. Institutions were asked to accept a reduction in state support in the current fiscal year, and also to anticipate further reductions in the two upcoming years covered by the biennial budget just approved. Although these changes do not impact private institutions directly, they still raise big concerns. Access and affordability will of necessity be reduced as the public institutions respond to these reductions by increasing tuition or decreasing programs offered to students, or a combination of both.
Recently there have been conversations in our state about whether higher education is a right or a privilege, and whether we citizens want our tax dollars to support post-secondary education. I certainly do want the taxes I pay to support higher education for our young citizens. And in my opinion the right or privilege debate misses the most important point. If Kentucky is to remain competitive in the 21st century, 21% of adults in the state holding a college degree simply will not cut it! So, whether you consider it a right or a privilege, we should really be thinking of higher education as a necessary and worthwhile investment. We need a partnership between public institutions and private institutions to move us forward in educating more young Kentuckians, and we need the support of state government in Frankfort to do so.
Those concerns did not diminish the celebration of Berea’s 240 graduates two weeks ago or EKU’s 2,700 new “eternal colonels” last weekend, and rightly so, but they do very much deserve to be on the minds of all Kentuckians.