Aaron Thompson started the new academic year with a full plate. As president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, he has the usual concerns about school budgets and performance-based funding, student readiness and career pathways.
But this year, he faces the daunting challenge of helping the state’s public universities and community college system navigate the continuing COVID-19 pandemic while addressing a financial crisis at the only historically Black institution of higher education in the commonwealth.
In August, officials at Kentucky State University announced the school owed about $13 million in unpaid bills and would require emergency funding to be able to stay open through the end of the academic year. That bombshell came after the sudden resignation of KSU President Christopher Brown in late July amid concerns about the school’s finances and allegations of misconduct.
It’s not the first time KSU has been in financial peril. In 2014, the school faced a $7 million deficit, which officials at the time largely attributed to unpaid tuitions and student fees. Thompson was appointed in 2016 to serve as interim president for a year and help right the school’s finances, lagging graduation rates, and other issues.
“When we left, we left a substantial amount of dollars in the reserve fund, as well as we were paying all of our bills, [and] we were, in fact, having all of our students pay for their bill,” says Thompson. “Also, I left them with a balanced budget.”
In response to the new crisis, Gov. Andy Beshear charged CPE with doing a full accounting of KSU’s finances. Thompson says that review is ongoing, but he says they’ve not found any evidence of intentional criminal activity so far. He says it appears the current fiscal troubles started in 2018, and that the university’s Board of Regents asked about the school’s finances but were told by administrators there was no problem. Thompson also says the board as well as CPE received incomplete financial data from school officials during that period.
CPE is set to issue a preliminary report to the KSU board on Oct. 19, and then a full report on Nov. 15. Until then, Thompson says the state has allowed the school to borrow money so it can make its fourth quarter payroll. The search for a new president will begin soon.
“We’re taking necessary steps to get this back in control,” he says. “Bottom line, though, it can’t happen this year… This is a long-term fix.”
At a recent meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations and Revenue, state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill), who chairs the Senate budget panel, questioned whether KSU should continue to operate given its financial problems and low enrollment and graduation rates. Thompson says he’s talked with House and Senate leadership about their concerns. He says he believes they and Gov. Beshear will continue to support the school and help ensure that KSU remains a viable, independent, historically Black university.
“Just because we’re in to some financial troubles that we have to fix, that doesn’t get rid of the viability nor the validity of a campus like Kentucky State University,” says Thompson. “We’re going to be building a plan of action that will help KSU to not only survive and but to thrive in the future.”
The Impacts of COVID on Schools and Students
The coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge the state’s colleges and universities as they struggle to balance the academic and emotional needs of students with public health protocols. Thompson says Kentucky’s schools did a good job with testing, contact tracing, masking, and other mitigation measures during the previous school year.
“We came way under the positivity rate than the general population,” he says. “This year we’ve done the same thing.”
While some state universities have required students to get vaccinated, Kentucky schools have not. Instead, Thompson says they have offered incentives to encourage students to take one of the COVID vaccines. He says CPE will work with campus administrators and public health officials to fulfill any federal orders that may require employees to get vaccinated.
The state’s public and private colleges and universities are set to receive about $454 million in federal COVID relief through the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March. While that will help those schools, Thompson says it won’t be nearly enough to offset COVID-related expenses.
“Federal money hasn’t covered the costs, no way,” he says.
Beyond the academic interruptions, Thompson says students are returning to school having been affected greatly by the pandemic – socially, emotionally, and culturally.
“We know we had some mental health issues with our students before the pandemic. With the pandemic, it’s increased tremendously,” says Thompson. “These are all added costs that we didn’t even have before.”
In addition to the toll on current students, Thompson says high school students with postsecondary aspirations have had three years of their studies interrupted, and will arrive at college less prepared academically and emotionally.
A recent report from the Kentucky Department of Education shows that only about 30 percent of high school juniors met the college readiness benchmark for math, 39.9 percent for reading, and 42.3 percent for English.
“These numbers are giving us an indicator that we have to do some work and do the work fast to help students catch up,” he says.
Thompson says he wants to see higher education offer what he calls “bridge programming” to students between their high school senior year and their college freshman year to better prepare them for their postsecondary studies.
“You can call it remedial [education] if you want to, but if they’re graduating with these numbers, bottom line is it’s essential education,” says Thompson.
Helping Adults Return to the Classroom
On the back end of the college experience, Thompson wants to ensure that students are prepared for gainful employment. The Lumina Foundation recently awarded CPE a $550,000 grant to help college advisors work with students to develop clear and achievable career goals that mesh with workforce needs.
“We’re not telling you to go in a certain direction,” says Thompson, “We’re just going to help you to decide the direction you want to go in.”
Thompson says this counseling will be especially important for underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students who may not have had the chance to explore all their career options. He says the students who have been historically disenfranchised are more likely to need this kind of help to get on a solid career path.
CPE is also committed to helping adults who have some college credits but no degree to return to school and complete their education. Thompson says it’s important for schools to meet the specific needs of each individual rather than lumping returning students into one large group. He says the kinds of wrap-around support services a 22-year-old single mother might need to return to the classroom could be very different than what someone in their mid-40s might need in order to advance their careers. He says schools should also provide competency-based options that give students academic credit for their real-life experience, and build relationships with employers to know what jobs and career paths are in the greatest demand.
Looking to next year’s session of the Kentucky General Assembly, Thompson says CPE will ask legislators for more money in the higher education performance-based funding pool: $67 million in fiscal year 2023, and $90 million in fiscal year 2024. He says state schools also need additional funds for deferred maintenance.