Too many community college students in Kentucky are dropping out before graduation because they lack money and other assistance to complete their degrees, according to a new report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
To reverse the trend, the state should invest more in need-based financial aid and other supports for community college students, such as help with child care and transportation, according to the report.
Doing so is important to meeting the state’s goal of increasing the graduation rate to the national average by 2020 and preparing more Kentuckians for jobs that require post-secondary education.
The report found 22 percent of Kentuckians ages 25 through 54 have some post-secondary education but don’t have degrees, and concluded many of them face barriers that derail their college careers.
Most community college students are adults with jobs and family responsibilities, many are low-income and a significant number are the first in their families to attend college.
They often have problems balancing these personal responsibilities. Also, because many lack high-school diplomas or have delayed college for work or family reasons, they find themselves shunted off into remedial courses that don’t count toward degrees. Navigating often-complex college requirements can cause further difficulties.
The report, written by KCEP research and policy associate Ashley Spalding, recommends the state fully fund the College Access Program, the only state needs-based financial aid vehicle that can be used at public colleges.
Funding through the program is on a first-come, first-served basis. At many institutions, including Ashland Community and Technical College, that means many students don’t get anything. Students who apply early receive aid, but that meant last year’s fund was depleted by February, said ACTC President Kay Adkins. “That tells you there’s a great demand for that kind of funding,” she said.
The report recommends the state wait until after the financial aid deadline to award the money and then make the lowest-income students the highest priority.
Many students are thrown off track by remedial course requirements and only a small percentage of students who enroll in the course graduate, according to the report.
Among the problems is the expense and time involved — the courses cost as much as classes that count toward degrees and take as much or more time, so some students come to the end of a semester with significantly less in the bank and no closer to a diploma.
One partial solution is the adult education program, said Janie Kitchen, ACTC dean of academic affairs. Classes there are free and can help bring students up to college-level learning. ACTC also has a three-week bridge course for high-school graduates who are on the cusp of college-ready scores, Kitchen said.
ACTC also is combining some developmental courses to decrease the time and expense for students.
Because community colleges often attract nontraditional students, who have families and jobs and who are returning to the academic world years after high school, the state should invest in helping colleges enhance supports, including advising, counseling and help with housing and transportation problems, the report concluded.
Students often need intensive academic advising and counseling, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college.
These student lack general knowledge about college requirements and how to pursue degrees. They may take unneeded courses, wasting time and limited financial aid money.
Often the result is discouragement and dropping out.
Advising on a case-management basis — having counselors to encourage and track students as they navigate the college path — can help, Adkins said. ACTC does that with peer mentors, she said.
The state should look at student-to-counselor ratios and consider ways to improve them, the report recommended.
ACTC also has a child-care facility, which can help with another issue identified in the report — that students with family and child responsibilities are more likely to drop out.
The state should consider emergency financial aid programs for students who have housing and transportation issues, the report recommended.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or