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Senator Proposes Tuition Freeze, Calls Hikes "Bordering On Criminal"

Josh James

Tuition and fees at state colleges and universities would be locked down for four years starting at the end of this academic year under a measure introduced by Senate Majority Caucus Chair Dan Seum Tuesday.

At a press conference and later that day on the Senate floor, Seum said universities' tuition hikes since the 2008 economic downturn have outstripped the state cuts they've absorbed by roughly $417 million. The Fairdale Republican suggested the schools have used the leaner state funds as a pretext to effectively gouge students.

"I think it border on criminal what these universities are doing with kids," he said.

Seum stressed that state revenue represents at best only 20 percent of universities' overall budgets, which he argues have often been redirected to new construction projects as schools engage in one-upsmanship, though he stopped short of naming any specific examples.

"All these universities are into castle building. If you look around... my castle is just bigger and better than yours," he observed.

The measure, Senate Bill 75, would also require universities to seek approval from the General Assembly for future tuition hikes once the freeze expires. Currently, all increases fall under the authority of the Council on Postsecondary Education, a body House Speaker Greg Stumbo commended Tuesday.

"The increases really haven't been as dramatic as they had been before the Council on Postsecondary Education," Stumbo told reporters. "The council has done a fairly job, I think, of keeping the cap on rates, particularly in these last eight years when we've had so many budget cuts in higher education."

Seum acknowledges passing SB75 will be "an uphill battle."

University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton released a statement: "Ensuring that the Commonwealth’s families can afford and have access to the University of Kentucky is one of our top priorities. To that end, we welcome the discussion about how we can all work together to make college even more affordable and accessible. Our efforts to reduce the barrier of cost are paying off. UK is investing a record $103 million in institutional scholarships and financial aid this year, nearly double what was provided in 2011. The number of first-generation college students has increased as has the number of students eligible for federal Pell grants, a key indicator of financial need. More than half of UK students continue to graduate without debt. Without question, we are steadfastly committed to ensuring access to higher education for Kentucky families and their children and we look forward to discussing how we can continue to make progress in this most important of priorities."

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.