Jay Box is president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. KCTCS consists of 16 open-access institutions with more than 70 locations statewide. Box succeeds Michael McCall, who retired in January after leading the system that was created in 1997. Box, a community college graduate, previously served as KCTCS chancellor.
Tom Martin: In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed making community college tuition free for two years, and his stated aim is to boost college graduation rates and ultimately to lift more people into the middle class. What's your view of that initiative?
Jay Box: We've always been excited about the emphasis on community colleges that President Obama has given us, and this new initiative called America's Promise is a great initiative in that it looks like it would provide more access and a reasonable way of paying for community college education.
We did a comprehensive evaluation of this plan based off of the Tennessee Promise model. The data shows that if we increase enrollment by 20 percent, as Tennessee has predicted, it would have a price tag of about $31 million in the first year. And the way the president's plan is outlined is that 75 percent of that cost would be from federal government with 25 percent being the responsibility of state government. That would mean about $7.7 million for Kentucky to be able to afford that plan.
Martin: Do you have a sense of the appetite for that kind of expenditure?
Box: There's not much support from Congress for the plan. I'm not sure it would go very far on the federal level. That's OK. I understand that money and budgets are tight across the country and especially here in Kentucky. The important thing is to start the dialogue. The dialogue is this: We cannot afford to continue to have postsecondary education be solely the cost of the student. We've seen this trend in the last decade where more and more of the cost has been passed on to tuition. At that same time, community colleges in Kentucky and other states have been criticized for the rise in tuition, but that rise in tuition has a correlation to the fact that state support and federal support has continued to decline.
Martin: Somebody might hear this and say to themselves, 'Well, why shouldn't it be the sole responsibility of the student? What's in it for me to support a student who may not be my child, my son or daughter?'
Box: Studies are showing that the jobs of the future are going to require some postsecondary education. We hope that we can make that affordable to the population because we want them to go out and help drive the economy of the future. I do believe there should be some investment from the students. But right now, our students leave with too much debt because the cost of going to college has skyrocketed to the point that they can't afford to pay for it without student loans.
Martin: What is KCTCS's role in adult education in Kentucky?
Box: KCTCS is an open-door institution. We accept anyone. And because of that, more than 50 percent of our enrollment is 22 years of age and older. Many times, the adult who comes back to us has either failed in their educational endeavors in the past or they had life happen, and it caused them to drop out and now they're coming back for a second chance. Those students traditionally do better because they're more committed to the educational process.
Martin: Does a professional certification, which might more clearly indicate a person's skill than would a degree, pay off better than an associate's degree?
Box: It depends on the sector. We have five major sectors in Kentucky that get most of our graduates. Health care, of course, is huge. Manufacturing is growing. Also, transportation, distribution, and logistics. And IT. Energy has dropped some with the reduction in the coal areas. But in some of those fields, a first or second level certificate can qualify someone directly into the workforce with a very good family sustainable wage. However, the further they go toward a degree, the better the likelihood of lifetime wages increasing.
Martin: You mentioned coal. Have you seen an uptick in the number of people who are interested in transitioning to another career and have come back to the community college system to help them find that path?
Box: Yes, we are seeing quite a bit of that in Eastern Kentucky. The coalfields in Eastern Kentucky have been impacted more than those in Western Kentucky. In particular, we're seeing coal miners coming back and looking into health careers as that's such a high-demand profession across the state.
Martin: What are you seeing these days in terms of minority enrollment?
Box: Our minority enrollment within our KCTCS colleges reflects that we enroll a higher percentage of minorities compared to the state percentage.
Martin: A Columbia University study finds that while 80 percent of community college students said they want a bachelor's degree or higher, only 20 percent actually transfer to a four-year institution within five years. How does that compare with your experience at KCTCS?
Box: Our numbers are similar. A large number of our students are part-time students. Not all of our students can afford to quit their jobs and come back to college full-time. So, because they work, it causes their time in college to be extended.
Martin: KCTCS is now the state's largest provider of online education, and we're in a world now where students can learn anything from anyone, anywhere online at a significantly lower cost. Why should parents continue to pay the increasing cost of sending their sons and daughters to a physical college campus?
Box: Right now, we have about 18,000 of our students out of 88,000 that are purely online students. Those are individuals who because of work-related issues have chosen to take all their coursework online. If you ask many students, most would tell you they would prefer to be in a face-to-face environment on a campus, but it's their life that gets in the way and prevents that. So, having that delivery option is critical for the future.
Martin: Demands on the workforce seem ever-changing in a world that's driven so powerfully by technology. How as an administrator do you keep up with it?
Box: Our workforce training division, Workforce Solutions, serves about 5,500 companies. Close to 50,000 employees are trained during a year. This is customized training in most cases, because our curriculum doesn't always keep up with the needs of the workforce. So, we have this feedback loop from our workforce training division back to our faculty so that quick changes can be made to our curriculum to keep up with the ever-changing needs of companies in the workforce.