As a graduate of a small Texas community college, Jay Box has an affinity for the institutions once known as junior colleges. Now Box oversees a statewide network of 70 campuses and nearly 100,000 students as the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
Just a month into his job as the second leader of KCTCS, Box appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss his work and the challenges facing the system and its students.
Box says he wants KCTCS to serve as the dreamcatcher for Kentucky’s youth.
“I want every student who wants to go to college to be able to fulfill those dreams that they have,” Box explains. “What that means for us is that we have to remove as many barriers as possible to help them be successful.”
But life and financial issues often stand in the way. Box says the top challenges for community college students include job conflicts, family obligations, lack of financial resources, and being ill prepared for college-level studies.
Helping Students Be Successful
Box says many students who may not be ready for a traditional university can thrive in a community college setting. He notes the small class sizes and caring faculty can provide a more nurturing environment for students who are uncertain about entering the world of higher education.
KCTCS conducts a range of recruitment activities to connect with potential students, including the upcoming Super Sunday initiative at African-American churches around the state. But Box says the system needs to do a better job of communicating to prospective students that not only can they attend college, but they can achieve a life or career goal in the process.
Enrollment at KCTCS jumped during the recession, Box says, because students laid off from work decided to go back to school and finish a degree or seek training for a new job skill. Now that the economy is improving, some of those students are dropping out to return to work.
“We’re hoping that students today will be looking at what is the end goal for their careers, not just for a job right away,” Box says. “And we’re hoping that we can convince them that the higher the degree, in most cases, the better your salary is going to be.”
Financial Challenges and Compensation Questions
Budget cuts have resulted in a $38 million decrease in state funding for KCTCS since 2008. Box says no college or university president wants to increase tuition, but they often have no choice when faced with such dramatic funding reductions. He says tuition at the KCTCS schools is $147 per credit hour, or about $2,100 per semester for a full-time student. Box says that is about 40 percent of what it costs to attend a four-year university in the commonwealth.
Those budget cuts have also led to an increased reliance of part-time adjunct faculty – up to 62 percent of all KCTCS instructors, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader story. Box claims that mix of full-time and adjunct professors enables KCTCS to offer a wider array of courses within its limited budget. Plus he says the part-time instructors can bring more real-world experience to a student’s classroom studies.
Executive salaries have been another issue for the community college system. Box’s predecessor, Michael McCall, was one of the highest paid community college presidents in the nation, making some $669,000 in 2013, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Box says he and the KCTCS board arrived at his compensation package of some $369,000 after reviewing what other similarly qualified college presidents around the country were paid.
“I would hope people would look at the breadth of my job and understand that I supervise 16 college presidents, and we have almost 9,000 employees and 95,000 students,” Box argues. “That’s a large organization.”
President Obama’s Tuition Proposal
Despite having only sketchy details at this point, Box says he’s excited by President Obama’s recent proposal to provide free tuition for community college students. The plan would cover all incoming students who attend at least part-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA.
Box estimates the plan would cost the state of Kentucky an additional $7.8 million to cover KCTCS tuition fees the first year. That price tag would escalate as student enrollment rises. But Box contends removing that financial barrier would increase access to 20 percent more students each year.