Sen. McConnell stepped in to help students in eastern Ky.

Published 11:32 am Monday, March 26, 2018

Throughout Kentucky, we’re facing a skills gap in the workforce, leaving more than 100,000 jobs unfilled. The mission of the 16 colleges of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is to educate students from all walks of life. We provide access to higher education so they may learn the skills required to join the workforce and have long and meaningful careers. In other words, we better the lives and improve the employability of Kentuckians.

Located in one of the most economically distressed regions of our state, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) is often the best chance for students in this region to gain an affordable education that makes them marketable to area employers. This region continues to endure the consequences of the debilitating decline of the coal industry. This has had rippling effects on other industries in the region, contributing to increased poverty, immobility and sometimes even to drug addiction and incarceration.

Eastern Kentucky is in a period of transition, looking for ways to diversify the workforce and to breathe life back into the local economy. SKCTC is a beacon of hope to many Kentuckians who are looking to invest in their future and contribute to their community. Since 2006, SKCTC:

· Awarded more than 11,000 degrees, diplomas, and certificates.

· Delivered Workforce Training to 47,469 program participants.

· Provided Workforce Training to serve over 380 companies by supporting local business and industry workforce needs.

Many students say SKCTC has changed their lives. One example is Jeff Mills, who was a coal miner. After he lost his job, he took advantage of the dislocated workers program at SKCTC earning a degree in automotive technology. He then was hired by the Harlan County Board of Education to be in charge of the maintenance of their fleet of 116 buses.

Many SKCTC students depend on student loans to help pay for their college education. Under the federal “Higher Education Act” (HEA), a college is held responsible for the number of students who default on their loan debt. Yet under the law, SKCTC cannot deny a student a loan if they meet the eligibility requirements for the federal student loan program. Further, this accountability measure also fails to grasp the economic realities of Southeastern Kentucky.

Because SKCTC’s students typically have great financial need and because workforce opportunities are in limited demand, students are at greater risk of defaulting on their student loans. Increasing rates of opioid addiction, extended economic hardships and other factors outside the control of these students have only compounded these challenges.

Recently, SKCTC was notified their student loan default rate was higher than allowed by federal guidelines. Although HEA establishes an appeals process for colleges in economically distressed regions, the appeal requirements are stringent. As a result, SKCTC could be rendered ineligible for participating in federal student aid programs. Students would no longer be able to access federal financial aid to attend SKCTC, preventing the college from serving the students who can benefit the most from the college’s services. Ultimately, losing access to federal funding would likely force the college to close, displacing thousands of current students, thus eliminating a vital source of educational opportunity for future students in the region.

However, when the college needed it most, Sen. Mitch McConnell came to SKCTC’s aid. In the recent federal budget, Senator McConnell secured a provision providing the Secretary of Education flexibility to consider economic hardships and waive potential sanctions.

Southeast fulfills many of the region’s desperate needs, and many Kentuckians simply would have no access to educational opportunities without it. The Aspen Institute ranked SKCTC in the top ten percent of community colleges across the country, and the faculty and staff are some of the best in their fields.

SKCTC’s service to the region is invaluable and we’re hopeful that the Secretary of Education will acknowledge the economic challenges of the region as well as the tremendous work SKCTC is doing. In addition to an education, SKCTC also offers students hope for a better life. It would be devastating to see that opportunity taken away from them.

The Kentucky Community and Technological College System thanks Sen. McConnell for his leadership and continued support.

Dr. Jay Box is the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.