Educating a “Work Ready” Kentucky: A Closer Look at the Impact of Free Community College Legislation in Kentucky

Educating a “Work Ready” Kentucky: A Closer Look at the Impact of Free Community College Legislation in Kentucky

Bennett P. Greene, KLJ Staff Editor[1]

Recently, free community college programs have become a common topic of debate in our state legislatures. As of May 2016, four states had enacted free community college legislation, and at least 16 other states were considering similar legislation.[2] Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, have supported the movement.[3] Progressives see an opportunity to assist those who previously might have found college to be “financially out of reach.”[4] Conservatives see a way to stimulate the economy through meeting workforce demands, while keeping new costs to taxpayers nominal.[5]

At least twenty-seven community college programs have launched since 2015.[6] Many states, including Kentucky, have pending legislation or are in the process of presenting legislation that furthers the 2015 Obama White House initiative.[7] Programs of this nature certainly have benefits and costs, yet some can be more easily identified than others. Unfortunately, community colleges have extremely high drop-out rates.[8] “Just 20 percent of full-time students seeking a degree get one within three years.” [9] In some instances, these numbers may be even lower.[10] While community college enrollment increases, other training programs, including trade programs could see decreased enrollment as community college tuition becomes free. These vocations are essential to the functioning of the United States economy.[11] Increased demand and decreased supply leads to increased costs in these trade-based fields.[12]

Kentucky Legislation

In April 2016, the Kentucky Legislature passed HB626, as a part of the “Workready Kentucky” Initiative.[13] HB626 or the “Work Ready” bill intended to implement a priority program for free tuition for two-year associate’s degrees.[14] HB626 would have required students to apply for available student aid, and the state would pay the difference.[15] Additionally, Kentucky students would have to take 12 credit hours and maintain a 2.0-grade point average.[16]

Even though the bill passed in the Kentucky House of  Representatives with an 86-11 vote, Governor Matt Bevin vetoed the bill on April 27, 2016, but left the budget of $15.9 million to fund another version of this program.[17] On December 23, 2016, Governor Bevin signed an executive order to adopt a modified version of this program, called the “Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship.”[18] The Work Ready Kentucky Program, which will start with the 2016-2017 school year, allows students to pursue a two-year degree within specified workplace sectors.[19] The sectors are identified as “high-demand workforce sectors”, that are to be determined by the state and can change over time. [20] In the executive order Bevin stated the Commonwealth “is committed to increasing the currently low workforce participation rate by expanding the skilled, competitive workforce necessary to attract new businesses to the state.”[21]
Kentucky’s Work Ready program allows students to use the funding at the state’s four-year public institutions, Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), or another other accredited college in the state.[22] The first round of scholarships (2016-2017) will include the following industries: health care, transportation/logistics, advances manufacturing, business services/IT and construction.[23] The program requires students to exhaust other available forms of student aid and will cover the remaining expenses.[24]

Kentucky’s Work Ready plan contrasts with other free community college initiatives across the country in several ways. Because the scholarships can be used at four-year colleges and universities within the state of Kentucky, students can have the costs of the first two years of a four-year program covered.[25] Additionally, Kentucky’s program allows the usage of the scholarship towards technical and vocational training through state approved programs.[26] These specifications could be Kentucky’s attempt at confining some of the risk of allocating funds to free college. Scholarships provided within certain sectors allow Kentucky to provide a trained workforce to particularized business sectors.[27] Furthermore, by selecting economically desired sectors for scholarship, students (and taxpayers) are more likely to get “a return on their investment.”[28] Students may be more likely to attend state schools with this program, creating economic growth through increased enrollment at Kentucky’s state colleges and universities.

Community colleges are not always known for their technical programs. Community colleges can often be described as either “transfer-focused” or “technical colleges.” [29][29] But, with scholarship programs like the one in Kentucky, technical education could be making a comeback.

While the Work Ready Program eliminates some of the major concerns with free community college legislation, its program also highlights several points of contention commonly discussed resulting from the implementation of free community college legislation and programming.  Kentucky’s career specific programming could deter students from entering career fields they previously would have entered, to enter a cost-free program. HB626 sparked debate among legislators concerning the grade point average (GPA) requirement. The governor, through executive order, set the GPA requirement at 2.0.[30]

Kentucky’s Work Ready program attempts provide its citizens with the education and training they need to successfully enter and stay competitive in the workforce. Free community college legislation, while sometimes controversial, has proven to be something both parties can get behind.[31] Kentucky must continue to consider its specific circumstances, bearing in mind economic and workforce preparation needs.

[1] J.D. Expected May 2018
[2] Thomas L. Harnisch & Kati Lebioda, The Promises and Pitfalls of State Free Community College Plans, AASCU (May 2016), http://www.aascu.org/policy/publications/policy-matters/freecommunitycollege.pdf.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] H.B. 626, 16 Reg. Sess. (Ky. 2016).
[8] Susan Dynarski, How to Improve Graduation Rates at Community CollegesN.Y. Times (Mar.11, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/upshot/ how-to-improve-graduation-rates-at-community-colleges.html?_r=0.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Valerie Strauss, Why We Need Vocational TrainingWashington Post (Jun. 5, 2012), https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-we-need-vocational-education/2012/06/04/gJQA8jHbEV_blog. html.
[12] Id.
[13] Tom Loftus, Bevin Delays Free Community College Plan, Courier Journal, (April 28, 2016), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-governor/2016/04/27/bevin-vetoes-30-parts-state-budget-bill/83614366/.
[14] Id.
[15] Joseph Gerth, Kentucky House Approves Free Community College, Courier Journal (March 17, 2016), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-legislature/2016/03/17/ky-house-approves-free-community-college/81915692/.
[16] Id.
[17] Loftus, supra note 13.
[18] Morgan Watkins, Bevin creates college scholarship program, Courier Journal (Dec. 23, 2016), http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/2016/12/23/bevin-creates-college-scholarship-program/95790654/.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Ashley A. Smith, Delayed Promise in Kentucky, Inside Higher Ed (April 29, 2016), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/04/29/kentucky-will-delay-free-community-college-scholarship.
[26] Id.
[27] Watkins, supra note 18.
[28] Watkins, supra note 18.
[29] Alexandra Pannoni, Frequently Asked Questions: Community College, US News (Feb. 6, 2015, 8:00 AM), http://www.usnews.com/education/community-colleges/articles/2015/02/06/frequently-asked-questions-community-college.
[30] Watkins, supra note 18.
[31] Anne Kim, Tennessee Promise: Offering Free Community College to All Students, Republic 3.0 (June 2014), http://republic3-0.com/tennessee-promise-free-community-college-for-all-students/.

*Featured image provided by the Free Cooper Union, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0