By Zachary Pence
Kentucky ranks amongst the least educated states in the nation. With 21 percent of residents having a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2012 census, only a few states fare worse: Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia.
Although state education leaders have adopted a goal of increasing the proportion of college-educated Kentuckians, rising college costs have been outpacing household income growth.
In-state tuition costs for attending Eastern Kentucky University this year — $7,320.
That's not including room, board and fees, which in some case may be as much as $18,336 per academic year, according to data provided by EKU’s Office of Institutional Research.
According to 2012 census data, the median household income for Kentucky fell from $41,148 to $39,856 from 2008-2011, while registration fees increased 15 percent during that same period.
Some students at EKU decided it was time to speak up.
The Student Government Association produced a video that stresses the importance of affordable higher education for EKU students, citing Eastern Kentucky's unique educational and financial needs.
The Board of Student Body Presidents, which is comprised of the student body president from each of Kentucky’s public universities, canceled the annual Rally for Higher Education that it typically hosts at the state capital.
“We decided that we would like to take a more personal and respectful approach to voicing our opinions to the state legislators,” said SGA president Madelyn Street.
The video, just under four minutes long, can be viewed on vimeo.com with the title “EKU SGA.” It includes comments from EKU students (including Street), staff and administrators.
In the video, students, such as Madison Koller, offer personal testimonies concerning the ways EKU has enriched their lives.
“EKU offers very specialized programs, which can help you find a job,” said Koller, who is studying American Sign Language (ASL) Interpretation.
Staff members also contributed.
Brandon Williams, assistant director at the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, spoke about the importance of his college experience.
Williams earned degrees in Spanish and public administration at EKU, where he also met his wife.
“Everything good in my life has happened at EKU,” he said.
Benton Shirley, director of University Advising, stressed the critical role postsecondary education plays in keeping Kentucky competitive “as we prepare for those jobs that are more technologically sophisticated and part of the 21st century.”
However, none of the testimonies mentioned a solution to the obvious problem: Someone has to pay Eastern’s bills. If the students are tapped out, whose responsibility is it?
Tuition hikes are not unique to EKU. Colleges all over the state and nation have been increasing their fees.
“Over the last decade, the funding cuts in higher education have resulted in each university in Kentucky having considerably less state support per student than we had 10 years ago,” said EKU President Doug Whitlock.
The tuition increases, he added, have not made up the difference.
While the situation is not specific to EKU, Street said the region EKU serves faces unique challenges.
“It is absolutely essential that our state government take into consideration how their cuts are directly effecting our student. Especially at Eastern, because we pride ourselves in providing a low-cost education for students that wouldn't otherwise be able to receive a degree,” she said.
She challenges legislators to end higher education cuts and develop innovative strategies for providing incentives to universities for increased productivity.
Quick, affordable communication campaigns such as this could be a useful way for young people to reach out to legislators and the public at large state, according to Rep. Rita Smart (D-Richmond), who was recently appointed to chair of the House of Representatives’ Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee.
An EKU graduate, Smart said she was “impressed and proud of the professionalism and quality of the video.”
Despite its current circumstances, she said the state is making strides to provide postsecondary education to the students of eastern Kentucky. These improvements come in the form of virtual learning opportunities, which can save travel time and costs.
In addition, the Kentucky Counsel on Postsecondary Education, along with university administrators are reviewing course requirements to help students complete them in a timely manner.
She also thinks improving college readiness across the state, which cuts down on students' need to take remedial courses, is another way to reduce student expense.
Smart encourages young people to speak to all legislators, “especially those in their districts or on the education committees.” She advises them to share their experiences of how higher education changed their lives, or how education costs are affecting their families.
The video ends with students declaring, “Our education depends on you!”
The “you” in that statement, is ambiguous. Are they speaking to Kentucky legislators? The people of Kentucky? The federal government?
While Street said the message was intended for legislators, it is clear that the cost of college is a heavy burden that must be shouldered by all the above.