It’s not every day that a university and its president are honored in the Kentucky General Assembly for freezing tuition.
But that’s exactly what happened in the state Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 6, when, with Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson at his side, State Sen. Jared Carpenter rose to read Senate Resolution 118, which noted that EKU was the sole Kentucky public postsecondary institution to have announced a tuition freeze for the 2018-19 academic year.
“This action taken by the leadership of Eastern Kentucky University demonstrates a commitment to affordable access to public postsecondary education,” the resolution read. “The members of the Senate hereby honor Dr. Michael Benson for his leadership of EKU and rightfully thank him for his role in freezing tuition for the 2018-19 academic year.”
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives recognized a contingent of approximately 85 EKU and Richmond Chamber of Commerce officials, as well as community business, governmental and education leaders and members of Leadership Madison County who trekked to Frankfort for the annual Colonels at the Capitol Day. Earlier in the day, the group met with various House and Senate leaders for a frank discussion of various issues, including pension reform and budget cuts.
As it now stands, the University’s pension obligation will increase from $22 million to $32 million for the coming fiscal year. That’s on top of a $5 million cut in state support to the institution. By 2020, only 15 percent of the University’s budget will be derived from state funding.
“But we can’t make up that deficit on the backs of our students,” Benson said, noting that 65 percent of all undergraduate degree recipients are low-income, first-generation or both
The institution’s 13th president proudly proclaimed Eastern to be “Kentucky’s university,” noting that nearly 90 percent of its students come from Kentucky and more than 70 percent are employed in Kentucky a year after graduation, many as teachers and school administrators, health care professionals, and police officers and other first responders.
“At the end of the day,” Benson told the group, “this is about our students. I never ever want us to lose sight of the fact that we are in the people transformation business.”
The group also heard from Dr. David McFaddin, EKU vice president for engagement, regional stewardship and government relations; Madison County Judge-Executive Reagan Taylor; David Gilliam, assistant superintendent for Madison County Schools; and Amy Scarborough, chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.
Legislators who addressed the group included House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell; Carpenter; 81st District Rep. Wesley Morgan; 27th District State Sen. Steve West, chair of the Postsecondary Budget Review Subcommittee; and Senate President Robert Stivers.
Shell said the Assembly’s focus is on “long-term sustainability” of the pension system.
“The process,” said Carpenter, “is all-consuming. You appreciate process, and I like you being engaged in that process.”
“We don’t have the option of kicking this down the road,” West declared. “If we don’t get past the pension crisis, we truly have a fiscal solvency issue, and it will get worse.”
Stivers, who represents the 25th District in the heart of EKU’s primary service region, said the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS) “will be insolvent in less than five years if we don’t deal with it,” adding that the Senate is “being very deliberate and very measured” in its response.
The Senate resolution praising the tuition freeze was sponsored by Carpenter, who represents the 34th District, and fellow Senators Tom Buford (22nd District) and Dan Seum (38th District).
“President Benson and his leadership team made a great call to use their resources wisely,” Carpenter said. “That’s a lesson we can all learn from.”