It used to be that enrollment in a Kentucky community colleges was seen as a stepping stone to completing a degree at one of the state’s universities.
But Jay Box wants the colleges to be onramps to “career freeways” where students can speed into a new career or advance in their current jobs.
Box is the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). He appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the how his schools are serving a wide range of Kentuckians and fostering a 21st century workforce.
Credentials, Certificates, and Degrees
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates the by the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year bachelor’s degree. It could mean a professional or industrial certification that can be completed in a matter of weeks.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reports that people with career and technical education are more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials.
Box says KCTCS is well positioned to prepare individuals to enter the workforce. Students in the system can earn three levels of credentials: a two-year associate’s degree, which includes general education courses; diplomas, which require two years of study but don’t necessarily include general ed classes; and certificates, which can be earned in one year or less.
“We have over 200 credential certificates that you can earn within four months,” Box says. “Some will get you a job that will pay as much as $60,000 a year.”
Where once educators talked giving students a career pathway, Box wants to give them a “career freeway” that delivers them to an employment destination even faster. With about 200,000 unfilled jobs available in the commonwealth, time is of the essence.
“You do not need to be spending six to eight years of your life finding yourself,” Box says. “Our society can’t afford that and, really, you’re losing out on lost wages.”
Innovative Programs Targeted to Workforce Needs
As recently as a few years ago, KCTCS was still focused on feeding students into four-year universities. During the height of the post-2008 recession, when few jobs were available, and even fewer for those with only an associate’s degree or less, Box says KCTCS enrollment boomed as displaced adult workers without a bachelor’s degree went back to school to complete their studies.
When the economy started to improve, people left the classroom to take work, and KCTCS lost about 30,000 students, says Box. Now enrollments are about 107,000 students annually.
But as the economy improved, many people in the state’s workforce weren’t prepared to take advantage of it. Thousands of jobs still went unfilled because employers couldn’t find qualified workers, especially in health care, manufacturing, transportation and distribution logistics, information technology, and the construction trades.
That’s when KCTCS changed its focus to helping prepare Kentuckians to fill those jobs.
“We want to serve our communities and the students within our communities,” he says. “If that means that we shift our directions and our programming, we have to do that.”
While overall enrollment dropped by about 20 percent from its peak in 2011, Box says the number of credentials that KCTCS has awarded has actually increased by 21 percent in that same time period. The colleges have fueled that growth through several innovative initiatives executed in partnership with state education and workforce development officials.
– High school students can take dual-credit courses that give them academic credit in both high school and college. Last year alone, Box says over 16,000 high schoolers took at least one dual-credit class. That enables students to make significant progress towards a KCTCS credential even before graduating.
“They can save so much on a full credential by taking dual credit in high school,” Box says.
– Work Ready Kentucky Scholarships help those with a high school diploma or GED pay for schooling to complete an industry-recognized certificate or diploma.
Box says KCTCS will take that state program a step farther with its own Onramp Initiative. Starting this fall, Onramp will help those without a high school equivalency go to school for one semester and graduate with a certificate and their GED. Box says there are 350,000 adult Kentuckians who don’t have a high school diploma or GED.
“That is a population that is under-educated and under-employed,” he says. “We believe that that’s the population that we should be trying to address as much as the high school graduates.”
– Kentucky FAME is a work-and-learn program that employs students in a factory job three days a week for pay and then provides them with college classes two days a week. Box says the program started at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, and has spread to a dozen other manufacturing facilities around the state.
“Now we’re looking for opportunities for a FAME-like program in the other sectors,” Box says. “We’re looking at more in the health care industry, in particular… and possibly even in the distribution fields.”
Funding Woes Continue
All this is happening in the midst of ongoing financial challenges. KCTCS, like the rest of higher education, has sustained multiple funding cuts since the recession. The new state budget passed by lawmakers earlier this year includes another 6.25 percent reduction for the coming biennium. Box says that equates to a little more than $11 million for KCTCS.
Some of that money will be made up with moneys from the new performance-based funding pool established for state colleges and universities. Box says the remainder will be made up by cuts to some programs and services. The KCTCS board will meet this month to also consider a tuition increase of $7 per credit hour.
“We will still remain at least half of the tuition rate of the [state] universities,” he says. “But we’re trying to balance that increase in tuition with reducing our expenses so that not everything goes on the back of students.”
Box says he’s instructing his campus presidents to make eliminating personnel a last resort, but he still expects to lose about 25 employees from the statewide KCTCS workforce of 3,800 people. He says the good news is that the system will not have to close any of its 73 campuses around the commonwealth. That will enable the schools to continue to fulfill their educational mission.
“What KCTCS does for you is provide you a better life,” Box says. “From your better life, you’re helping produce a better community and a better Kentucky.”