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KCTCS President: Community Colleges' Mission the Same, Despite Enrollment Drop

Alix Mattingly/WFPL News

The head of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System says the schools are key to building a stronger workforce, which translates into a stronger middle class — this is despite a steep decline in enrollment.

The enrollment decline is being attributed to an improving economy.

KCTCS President Jay Box recently sat down for an interview with WKU Public Radio, a Kentucky Public Radio member station.

Lisa Autry: You were recently appointed to a national community college board called Reclaiming America’s Middle Class. One of its missions is to promote community colleges and the role they play in serving students, whether right out of high school or adult learners who perhaps are coming from jobs into the classroom. Talk about some of the priorities of this national board.

Box: This board represents about 120 of the 1,200 community colleges across the nation. It’s primarily those community colleges that are members of large state community college systems or large districts in major cities. The reason for this group to be formed is because so much of the legislation developed on the federal level lumps everyone together including the four-year universities, and it was important to have a voice for those of us who represent community college state systems and large districts. Some of the things we look at are financial aid regulations and how they impact our students as compared to university students. That’s a big difference, and we want to make sure they understand that. We also look at the advantages of the community colleges in developing legislation that promotes workforce education, and for us, career and technical education, and we think that is very important.

Autry: Community colleges nationwide have seen an enrollment drop since the end of the recession. Is it a challenge to convince students of the importance of a degree or certification if they are able to find work in an improved economy?

Box: It’s a challenge because when the economy turns sour and individuals lose jobs they realize that to advance themselves they probably need to go back to school. They do that and begin to earn credits, some are actually able to get credentials that will help them, but as soon as that economy turns around and better jobs are available, they’ll jump back into the workforce. However, the challenge for them is to see the long-term opportunities for advancement in a career, and usually that doesn’t happen unless they have earned college credentials and certifications. To convince them that they need to continue with their education while they have a paying job is sometimes difficult, and that’s what we strive to work on everyday.

Autry: Can you share any numbers with us any numbers as far the enrollment drop KCTCS has seen?

Box: Since our peak in the fall of 2011, we have lost about 26,000 students. The majority of the loss were our non-traditional students, older adults who were displaced from the workforce in 2008 when the recession hit. There were three or four years during the recession when they could not find work and came back to school. Actually, when you talk about where our enrollment is today, it is very close to the same enrollment we had back in 2008. Our enrollment now is probably the leveling off, and unless there is a huge recession, our enrollment growth will be very minimal over the next few years.

Autry: Given that, has the role of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System changed in any way?

Box: No, I don’t think so. We still have three pieces of our mission that are very important. The first part of our mission is to prepare students to be better college-ready and workforce-ready, which is really the remediation part of our agenda. Sixty-five percent of our students enter not ready for college, and that’s not always high school graduates. It could be adults coming back into our system, so we spend a lot of time in developmental education. The second part of our mission is transfer education. Each year, we transfer around 12,000 students to the universities, so that’s always going to be an important part of our mission. The third part is workforce education and training. Even though our credit enrollment has gone down, we still do quite a bit of work with business and industry in customized training of their workforce, helping their employees learn more skills that are specific to that job.

Autry: What job sectors are in most need of community college graduates?

Box: Right now, without a doubt, it’s manufacturing in Kentucky. Manufacturers are begging us for more students through the pipeline and we’re working with manufacturers to help get the message out that there are good-paying jobs that come through the manufacturing industry, and so we’ve ramped up our programs across the state to take on that challenge of developing more graduates in the manufacturing sector. Health care continues to be strong. Our nursing programs and related health care programs are full across the state.

Autry: Given the major loss in coal jobs in eastern Kentucky, have you seen an increase in laid off miners entering the KCTCS?

Box: Yes, and we’ve started up some new programs at the eastern Kentucky colleges that are there specifically to help address the displaced coal miners. One of them is linemen training where we’re helping individuals learn the skills to string cables across the state for electricity and so forth, but also for the new expansion of fiber across the state, they will be employed fairly quickly as that gets going. The other is coding, an IT-based program, and it’s very popular, so we’re seeing a lot of enrollments in those programs.

Autry: Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget proposal seeks a nine percent cut in higher education funding. In the near future, he also wants to fund colleges and universities based on their performance in areas like retention and graduation rates. Is a performance-based funding model fair when the state is requiring higher education to do more with less?

Box: Fair is not a word I would like to use. KCTCS has always taken pride in the fact that we’re very performance-based. We set performance goals for ourselves on an annual basis and strive to meet those. Being forced into a performance-based funding model doesn’t really concern us except for the details of any performance-based funding.

For example, the governor has said that he would pull all the money for the universities and KCTCS and pool it, and we would have to be competing on common performance measures. I’m totally opposed to that. Having the Kentucky Community and Technical College System compete with the University of Kentucky for certain levels of degrees, we could not compete on that. I think if performance standards are mission-focused and take into consideration that our mission is much different than the universities, then I’m all for that.

The other part that is a concern is how much of the funding would be put into the performance pool. The governor has proposed that one-third of state appropriations would be set aside in the first year, and then that would advance to two-thirds, and then 100 percent within the three years after that. There are set things in the operating budget of an institution that have nothing to do with performance. You have maintenance and operations, utility costs, insurance. All those things you have no control over and performance of your students has no bearing on whether or not you can pay those bills, so I’m against 100 of the funding be split.

What we’ve seen in other states that have enacted performance-based funding is that no more than 25 percent of a college or university’s budget is set aside for performance-based funding, so it is a little bit discerning that 100 percent could be moving in that direction. The other thing we’ve seen in the states that have implemented performance-based funding is that they’ve never done it in a year when they’ve also cut the budgets of the institutions.