Mary Evans Sias: KSU must change to keep its promises

Mary Evans Sias is president of Kentucky State University.
Mary Evans Sias is president of Kentucky State University.

Recently, as I sat in the theater watching the movie Lincoln, I was reminded of the difficult strategic decisions President Abraham Lincoln faced on a regular basis. Not only did he act to free the slaves and preserve the nation, he also signed the Morrill Act into law, creating the land-grant system which democratized higher education in this country. For the first time access to higher education became available to all people, regardless of race or income.

Kentucky State University was chartered in 1886 as one of those land-grant institutions. While KSU remains true to its original mission of providing access to college for many underserved students, we know that access is not enough. More than ever, we must commit ourselves to a campus culture of completion.

The economic setbacks of recent years have taken quite a toll on our nation's institutions of higher education. For the first time in more than 45 years, we have begun to see a downward trend in enrollment across the country. Retention and graduation rates are down as well. The recession has been particularly hard on historically black colleges and universities such as KSU, along with other schools serving low- and middle-income students and their families.

KSU posted enrollment growth each year from 2003 to 2010, at which point we saw our first decline. Although the decline was small, this past fall the recession and changes in federal policies drove our enrollment down even further. It was obvious to us more than a year ago that we needed to make some strategic changes in our operating policies and our organizational structure to stop the decline not just in enrollment but more importantly in our retention and graduation rates.

As we expected, in May of 2012, our graduation rate hit a low of 14 percent, down substantially from 2003. That enrollment decline resulted in a $4.8 million loss of revenue for the year.

These are the current realities for KSU but they do not represent our future. We accept the fact that access without completion is a promise broken to every student who comes to KSU to get an education.

We have put in place a detailed plan to address the issues that impact student success, retention and graduation/completion. We are streamlining our organizational structure, eliminating bureaucratic rules and speeding up the time it takes to earn a degree. We are making our academic programs more efficient, transforming supplemental education so college credits count upfront, growing our online programs and expanding the use of technology. We are also looking at changes in our scholarship program and ways to increase opportunities for students to receive need-based assistance.

Additionally, over the past several months, we have launched several new initiatives:

Providing 24/7 online tutorial services.

Developing living and learning communities in our dorms.

Opening a new Innovation, Excellence and Success Academic Center for our students to have access to more technology.

Increasing the number of incoming transfer students and looking to dramatically increase the number of graduate students.

Extending library hours until midnight nightly.

Revamping our scholarship program.

Providing better training for our staff in customer service.

Upgrading our campus work program.

Kentucky State has many other accomplishments of which it should be proud, including:

An aquaculture program that is one of the best in the country.

Top 20 status in organic farming.

Listed among the "Best Schools in the Southeast" by the Princeton Review.

Cited as one of the top historically black colleges and universities by US News & World Report.

Raised more than $4 million toward our $12.5-million capital campaign.

A specially equipped boat nearing completion to allow students to study aquatic life on the Kentucky River.

Approximately 30 percent of our students work two or more jobs. Sixty-one percent of them are the first in their families to attend college. Some 84 percent come to KSU not fully prepared by high school, needing one or more courses in supplemental education before college credit can be earned. Those who do graduate often do so deeply in debt.

We have a challenge, yes.

But it must be met. Education remains at the very essence of the American Dream. This is not only an individual good but also a public good because we need a skilled citizenry to drive a knowledge-based economy. Now is the time to fully implement our culture of completion.