Eastern Kentucky Uni-versity. Western Kentucky University. Morehead State University. The University of Kentucky.
These are the four schools (for now, at least) which will be partnering with Somerset Community College to create the entity known as the University Center of Southern Kentucky.
The long-awaited announcement revealing the state universities that would be part of this grand project designed to bring the possibility of obtaining a four-year degree to Pulaski County was made May 6 at SCC, attended by a number of university representatives and local and state officials, including U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Governor Matt Bevin. In the crowd, all the familiar faces could be seen—Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley, scores of local business titans.
Rogers called it a "signal day" for this part of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
"The University Center of Southern Kentucky (UCSK) seemed like a pipe dream for many years," said Rogers, "but I want to thank (SCC President and CEO Dr. Carey) Castle for taking up the mantle and orchestrating the powerful partnerships that we are announcing today. This is just one more step forward, but a giant step."
The four different universities from various parts of the state—two from central Kentucky, one from the west, and one from the northeast—will be making available some of their programs and degrees to be taught using the SCC facilities, and accessing the local community college's resources. Students will be able to complete two-year degrees from SCC, and then transfer immediately to a partnering four-year institution of their choice while staying put in Somerset.
Rogers, who repeated his line from the original December press conference introducing the concept of UCSK calling it a "multiversity," said that "many students will soon be able to sign up for classes that will begin this fall," mentioning that University of Kentucky would likely be bringing their programs into the fold a year later.
Trent Pool, UCSK Director, confirmed that some courses of study would be available for the fall of 2019, including Criminal Justice through EKU on campus, and hopefully Western Kentucky's SkyTeach program for math and science education, but the bulk of UCSK offerings would come later.
"I hope we can have some things this spring semester, but in all honesty, we're probably looking for some of the things we're working on in the fall of (2020)," he said. "Logistically, these are programs that we're looking at on campus, so you have to work with the scheduling of faculty at the university, the classroom space here at Somerset, staff accreditation and approval of offering a program that facility (has). It's a huge undertaking."
Announcements about what will be coming up will be made as information is available, it was stated.
"This is just the beginning," said Castle. "... There will be more programs offered in the near future. There are certainly some regulations and hurdles that have to be overcome before we can move programs into place, so I ask you to please be patient, stay excited, and watch for more announcements, because they're coming."
As for what it was about these four universities in particular that made them want to get on board, Pool credits "a lot of communication (and) a lot of collaboration" between various entities.
"These were universities close or within our region that want to be invested in this area, and serve an outreach to students in this region," he said.
Pool added that there is "already discussions" about bringing more universities into the fold eventually. The goal is to have the University Kentucky fully on board by fall of 2020, though depending on how things work out, it could be later.
"We do look to expand this in programs, expand this in partnerships, and we'll announce those things as they become available," he said.
Pool specified things like high-speed Internet connection or a space free from distractions as benefits UCSK would provide through SCC to students in need of those crucial keys to education.
"On this campus and the Harold Rogers Student Commons, we will have space, technology and personnel at the University Center to provide student services and support for these university students," he said.
According to material provided at the announcement, close to 20 different degree programs from EKU have been confirmed, most as online Bachelor's Degree options right now, including accounting, general business, psychology, social work, sports management, political science, child and family services, and homeland security. Online options from Morehead will include accounting general business and small business management, technology management, professional studies, and computer information systems. Bachelor of Science degrees with a double major options from WKU include middle school science middle grades mathematics, computer information technology, biology, organizational leadership, and computer information technology.
Rogers said that while economic development, infrastructure, and tourism have all been strong for this area over the years, "the one thing missing has been a public four-year university" in town. He said that having the option to earn a Bachelor's Degree locally could save students more than $20,000 in room and board fees alone over their final two years — which, when considering the average college students graduates with a debt of over $29,000, Rogers noted, could could reduct student debt immediately.
"I believe that if we can keep just one generation of our brightest young students out of high school here at home, to earn a college degree and make a good living, we could transform the future of southern and eastern Kentucky," said Rogers. "I think that's what we're seeing here today."
Rogers credited local businessman Al Blakley with coming to his office last fall and talking about how to "revive the dream" of a local four-year college, and called the Founders Club that formed to help put the plan together, led by president Bill Turpen, "the driving force" behind UCSK.
Bevin called it a "blessing" to have SCC and UCSK facilities here to provide more educational opportunities for individuals in this area who are located at least an hour away from any of the four partner universities.
"The whole purpose of this facility ... was to create an environment in which people have opportunity to attain an education, and that through the attainment of it, that they could improve the economy, that they could enjoy their lives, that they could have a quality of life," said Bevin. "All these things are absolutely desired by people, everywhere. It's universal."
Bevin, whose term as governor has been defined by the struggle to reform state employee pensions and a resulting conflict with teachers and educational interests, touched on that angle during Monday's press conference at SCC.
"Three of the four (universities) that are committed to making this possible are regional universities," said Bevin. "They are people who very much are affected by a piece of legislation this is before our legislature at this time. It would be irresponsible of me not to speak to this at this time, because the inability of the universities to be able to invest in programs like this is going to be off the charts if we don't pass a bill that gives them some relief from their pension obligations. They still have the pension obligations, but right now, they do not have a plan that over 30 years will allow them to be able to pay this off.
"The reality is this: We have people that are resisting the idea of changing anything for fear that if we change the benefits for future people or in future years, that somehow we can't support that," he added. "I can tell you right now, there is not a university president that would not say the same, and they have said the same in writing letters to me demanding of us that we do something and get something done, in letters to our legislators. There's not one of them that would not have to lay off hundreds of people. Then it doesn't matter what kind of benefits they have; they won't have any. They won't have a job, and they won't have benefits to go with it."
Others who spoke at the announcement were Kentucky Community & Technical College System Chancellor Dr. Kristin Williams, and representatives of the four universities including EKU President Dr. Michael Benson, Morehead's Assistant Vice President of Regional Education & Outreach Dr. Dan Connell, UK Provost Dr. David Blackwell, and WKU's Dean of the College of Education & Outreach Dr. Corinne Murphy.
Murphy talked about bringing in WKU's SkyTeach program, centered around middle grades math and science teach education and a nationally-recognized bachelor completion program. SkyTeach allows students to earn a teaching certificate in middle grades math education, middle grades science education, or be dually certified in both.
"Education is key to economic viability. That is especially evident as we strive to prepare students for their roles in the K-12 classroom to educate those who will be our future," said Murphy in a release. "This partnership will improve access to additional educational offerings. By bringing the SKyTeach program to Somerset, WKU will not only impact the lives of the students who seize this opportunity, but also the lives of generations of students to come who will benefit from the education these future teachers will receive."
Benson talked about the "unbelievably rich tradition" of higher education in Kentucky, and how Transylvania University in Lexington has been ranked in its history among the most prestigious institutions in the nation — one that young Virginians might leave home to attend the way local students have had to go elsewhere for a four-year degree.
"Thomas Jefferson, when he was making a case to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia to found the university in Charlottesville (said), ‘If we do not fund the university in Charlottesville, the best and the brightest will continue to go to Cambridge, Mass., and Lexington, Ky.,' because they were going to Harvard and they were going to Transylvania."
Connell said Monday's reveal marked "a day that will transform this region," as well as transforming the lives of local students.
"This opportunity will allow existing businesses to thrive. It will attract new businesses to this region. It will help entrepreneurs and start-ups flourish," he said. "But more than that, it will also enhance and enrich the quality off life in this region. Not just in Pulaski County, but the whole entire surrounding region will benefit from this."
Blackwell said that the University of Kentucky is "excited to be a part of this initiative," and is in the process of evaluating what curriculum opportunities the Lexington institution can offer, "given what our partners are already providing, and we look forward to continuing our work together."
Added Blackwell, "States with college graduation rates above the national average have higher per capita income and generally better health statistics and health outcomes. More students crossing the commencement stage translates to more Kentuckians prepared to join the workforce, to support their families, and contribute to the local economy. But education does more than prepare us for occupation. It prepares us for life."
Castle said in a release that he was proud for his school to join UK, EKU, WKU and Morehead State in this endeavor, already a landmark achievement for the new SCC president after being selected to take over for the retired Dr. Jo Marshall just a little over a year ago.
"Our goal is to provide access to education that leads to careers and continued education, and the University Center of Southern Kentucky is an excellent way to do just that," said Castle. "SCC students in the surrounding counties will benefit from convenient access to an excellent education while they travel a seamless pathway to a bachelor's degree and beyond. It's a win-win-win for SCC, the four-year universities, and students."