Despite waiting list, a shortage of nurses and plenty of money, governor and legislature don’t fund new building for KSU nursing

Kentucky State University’s nursing program has outgrown the Betty White Health Center, opened in 1971. Nursing classes are spread in buildings across campus. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

By Sarah Ladd
Kentucky Lantern

Kentucky State University requested $50 million this year to build a nursing school for its growing class of future health care providers. The governor and legislature rejected the request, even though the KSU program has a waiting list and Kentucky suffers from a shortage of nurses but enjoys a record surplus.
“The real tragedy is that we had the money to do it,” Rep. George Brown Jr., a Lexington Democrat, told the Lantern last week. He called the omission “a travesty.” Brown and other lawmakers said the decision is part of a long pattern of neglect and underinvestment in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — a disparity the Biden administration also has highlighted.

It’s “always been the history,” said House Democratic Floor Leader Derrick Graham, a KSU alum who urged Republican legislative leaders to fund the nursing building.

During House debate, Black lawmakers pointed out that Kentucky’s only public HBCU was being denied $50 million for a project they deem critical to its future, while $125 million was quickly found for Northern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky to open a biomedical center in downtown Covington, where plans also call for NKU to move its law school.

The Senate added the Covington project to House Bill 1, which moves $2.7 billion from the Budget Reserve Trust Fund into one-time spending over the next two years. HB 1 includes other higher education projects: $60 million for a veterinary tech facility at Murray State University, $25 million for a UofL Health cancer center in Bullitt County and $22 million for a livestock innovation center at a UK research farm.

“Kentucky State always seems to suffer and always has to wait,” Brown said March 29 on the House floor. “‘You have to wait your time; it’s not your time.’ … So the question is, when will it be Kentucky State’s time?”

When budget negotiators met in a free conference committee on March 26, Graham asked why KSU’s “top priority” was not included in budget legislation. Graham represents Frankfort where KSU sits on a hill overlooking the capital city. Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said KSU had also revised its budget request by asking for money to deal with failing infrastructure and other maintenance needs.

House Bill 6, the budget bill, sets aside $60 million in bonding for “asset preservation,” described by McDaniel as “cleaning up campus.” House Bill 1 includes $5 million to design a Health Science Center for the nursing program but nothing to build it. McDaniel vowed “full intent” to pay for construction of KSU’s nursing building in the 2026 budget bill. McDaniel’s district includes Covington; he was instrumental in obtaining the $125 million for the downtown project involving NKU.

“We have a great deal of confidence in the new president of Kentucky State,” McDaniel said in the March 26 meeting. He was speaking of Koffi Akakpo, who became KSU’s 19th president last year on July 1. Before that, he was president of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

HB 6 provides all the public higher-ed institutions with asset preservation funding pools for renovation and maintenance of buildings and other infrastructure.

During the free conference committee meeting, Democratic Senate leaders Gerald Neal of Louisville and Reggie Thomas of Lexington, both of whom are Black, said that expanding KSU’s nursing program is critical to the school’s rebound from recent troubles. The construction delay will cost KSU new students and needed tuition revenue and disrupt Akakpo’s plan for the future, said Neal.
Neal and Thomas urged the budget negotiations to reconsider. Thomas suggested spending less on restoration and maintenance at KSU in this budget to free up $50 million over the next two years to design and build the nursing building.

Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown responded ​​that KSU was “probably lucky that they get the taxpayer money that they have been getting and continue getting. With the recent numbers and results that have come from K-State, I think we should be dubious moving forward.” He said the “numbers have been pretty embarrassing.”

KSU has faced a series of controversies, including misused funds under a former administration and a 2023 warning from its accreditation body. In 2022, the legislature put KSU under a management improvement plan and provided $23 million to help it recover from a budget deficit.

In an interview with the Lantern last week, Akakpo said he is “grateful” for the $60 million in bonding but that it will “go quickly” as he tackles a list of maintenance needs.

The HVAC system, he said, is “not quite up to par” and the dorms are “in really bad shape.” Sidewalks and entryways need fixing, he said, and “leaky roofs” have caused damage that needs attention. The $60 million does “not quite” cover these needs, he said. “But we will try the best we can.”

A new building for nursing students and money to address maintenance needs were “both equally crucial for us to move forward,” Akakpo told the Lantern.

KSU’s 342 nursing students make up 24% of the university’s enrollment, and the program is “only going to grow,” said Akakpo. Nursing students study in three separate buildings because no designated building is large enough.

The Betty White Health Center, which is 53 years old, has administrative offices and a learning lab. Students take classes in Bradford Hall, Carver Hall and Hathaway Hall. “The building is needed because the building that is assigned to the nursing program is too small,” Akakpo said. It’s also already full.

Kentucky is thousands of nurses short of what it needs. The state is short 5,391 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, according to the Kentucky Hospital Association. And, the students going into nursing school aren’t enough to replace those retiring and leaving the workforce.

Brown said KSU’s backlog of maintenance needs stems from historic underinvestment. The historically Black university, he said, is “the redheaded stepchild, if you will” of Kentucky higher education.

The Biden administration last year documented roughly $12 billion in underfunding for HBCUs nationwide when compared with state funding of similar predominantly white institutions.

The study compared land-grant institutions created by Congress in the 19th century, first for white students and later for Black students. KSU and UK are Kentucky’s land-grant universities. In Kentucky the disparity in per student state funding from 1987 to 2020 was $172 million.

U.S. Education Secretary Education Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent letters to governors, including Kentucky’s, asking for states to right the “historical underinvestment.”
A letter from Cardona to Gov. Andy Beshear cited “unbalanced funding” and “longstanding and ongoing underinvestment” as reasons KSU “has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with University of Kentucky.” It added that “unequitable funding” of KSU put it $172.1 million short of what it would have received in the last 30 years.

The budget Beshear introduced in December did not include money for the KSU nursing building. It did ask lawmakers to allocate about $1.2 million to KSU for nursing and social-work scholarships in 2024-26.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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