Kentucky Public Higher Education Affordability Ranks Low

Kentucky ranks 8th worst among states for college affordability – measured in terms of average tuition and fees at a public 4-year university as a share of median household income – according to Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 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.

The state’s inadequate investment in higher education over the last decade has contributed to rising tuition that has priced students out of college. Kentucky ranks 9th worst among states in the decline in inflation-adjusted state higher education spending per student between 2008 and 2018 (a drop of $2,986). This 27 percent decline is substantially 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).

“Pushing the cost of a college education in Kentucky onto students and their families, especially as family incomes have stagnated in recent decades, harms our economic security and our future,” said Ashley Spalding, Senior Policy Analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “And we’ve only made things worse in the new budget by cutting higher education once again and asking public institutions to compete for waning resources, despite the fact they have already cut faculty and staff, academic programs and student supports due to previous budget reductions.”

In Kentucky, the cost of higher education as a share of income is especially high for Black and Hispanic families. In 2017, the average tuition and fees at a public four-year university accounted for:

  • 21 percent of median household income for all Kentucky families.
  • 28 percent of median household income for Black Kentucky families.
  • 24 percent of median household income for Hispanic Kentucky families.

“The rising cost of college risks blocking one of America’s most important paths to economic mobility. And while these costs hinder progress for everyone, Black, Latinx, and low-income students continue to face the most significant barriers to opportunity,” said Michael Mitchell, Senior Policy Analyst at CBPP and lead author of the report.

Federal and state financial aid has failed to bridge the gap created by rising tuition and relatively stagnant incomes. One big consequence has been rising student debt. In 2008 just 52 percent of all Kentuckians graduating from a 4-year school had debt, but in 2016 that share had grown to 63 percent. And 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. Illustrating the challenge Kentuckians face in paying back this debt, Kentucky has the 4th highest student loan default rate in the nation.

“Instead of putting a college degree out of reach, Kentucky needs to improve our investments in higher education,” said Spalding. “To achieve a thriving commonwealth where a high-quality, affordable education is within reach for everyone, we need to stop giving away so much money on ineffective tax breaks including those passed in 2018 and invest in the things like education that truly make a difference to our economy.”

To read CBPP’s report, click here Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity.

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