Patton Recalls Higher Education Reforms

Pikeville College President Paul Patton served two terms as Kentucky's governor, but his first-term accomplishments likely will be his legacy.  And the reason is higher education reform.  In 1997, two years into his first term, Patton convinced lawmakers to approve a comprehensive package of post-secondary education reforms. The most controversial prong required the University of Kentucky to relinquish control of the state's community and technical colleges.

The new, independent entity was to be called the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

"This general assembly decided to make that combination," said Patton, "and put those institutions, that may be across the street from each other, competing with each other, wasting state resources - and one having one kind of nursing program and another having another kind of nursing program - and no transferability between them."

Recalling the reform effort at a legislative hearing in Frankfort, Patton said he felt it was important for the technical schools to be called colleges.

"We go through grade school and elementary and say, 'Everybody's got to go to college.' And then they graduate and we say, 'Well, yeah, everybody should go to college, but you ought to go to a technical school.' So, we eliminated that barrier. College is college. College is after high school."

The 1997 reforms also sought to make the University of Kentucky a comprehensive, research institution with a top 20 national ranking. The University of Louisville was to become a nationally recognized metropolitan research university. Fourteen years later, Patton says the universities are well on their way to achieving the goals.

"Perhaps my most important legacy to the State of Kentucky is the work that Lee Todd and Jim Ramsey and the other university presidents and college presidents have done," said Patton. "You know, we the governors, we the legislature - we can make all kinds of mandates and set all kinds of goals, but if you don't have boots on the ground implementing those policies that you've adapted, it doesn't work."

Patton says research dollars at UK, that come from outside the school, have climbed from $162 million in 2002, to $251 million last year. At U of L, the story is much the same, with outside research dollars doubling in that time frame.

Citing other recent statistics, Patton says 67 percent of Kentucky high school graduates now go directly to college, versus 59 percent in 1999. The total number of college degrees awarded in Kentucky last year exceeded 48,000, compared to 25,000 in 2001. And graduation rates continue to climb.

Patton says lawmakers get much of the credit, for not slashing higher education funding.

"I'm extremely pleased that even in these difficult times this general assembly has consistently - in every session since 1997 when this bill was passed - you all have kept the vision alive," said Patton. "You have done your best."

Asked if he sees any areas where the reforms need tweaking, Patton - who now chairs the Council on Postsecondary Education - said no, but "there will always be adjustments that need to be made."

Along those lines, CPE President Robert King says there are serious, ongoing concerns about college readiness. He says graduation rates are very low for students who enter college needing remediation courses.

"And this is what Senate Bill 1 of 2009, really we hope, is going to help us start to improve the impact of these numbers - number one, by reducing the number of students who need remediation, and number two, by improving the graduation rates of those who are entering who do need remediation," said King.

Various aspects of Senate Bill 1, the first major adjustment to former Gov. Patton's reform package of 1997, are still being rolled out.