Earlier this year, Kentucky policymakers floated an idea — the state's community and technical colleges could hand off all instruction of general education programs to four-year universities.
In part, that was to help address accusations that the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has administrative and academic bloat. Concerns have also arisen that the two-year campuses duplicate services, haven’t made transfer pathways easy and allowed “short-term certificates of questionable value” to proliferate, leading some to question whether these institutions should focus solely on technical education.
State regulators, however, did not endorse that idea in a series of recommendations released this month.
The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education is instead calling for a review of individual community and technical college governing boards and their responsibilities, intimating that they could be condensed into multi-campus advisory bodies that it said would “help drive collaboration and regional development.”
The system said Monday it agrees with leaving its programs intact.
A needed study
The recommendations from the council, or CPE, touch on several state higher education matters, including whether Kentucky should consider opening a new four-year college in the Southeastern region.
The study stemmed from a legislative demand earlier this year. Lawmakers approved a resolution in March directing the council to examine state higher ed, partially to ensure institutions are prepared to meet workforce needs.
A report outlining these issues and ways to improve efficiency in higher ed governance is due to lawmakers Friday. While the full report is not yet complete, according to CPE spokesperson Jesse Osbourne, the CPE published the summary of it and the council’s recommendations this month.
In the summary, the CPE said it couldn’t endorse removing programs from the two-year colleges without further study. But it stressed “there are numerous drawbacks” to the proposal.
The council said forcing associate degree students to start their college education at a regional public university might dissuade them from enrolling at all.
“Physical access would be reduced, costs would increase, and non-traditional, at-risk students may not feel as welcomed or accommodated,” the summary said. “Technical students would lose pathways to academic and transfer programs, which can be important to their career advancement.”
Accreditors also typically require technical programs to maintain the type of general education courses that regional public universities would exclusively run under the proposal, the CPE said.
This would necessitate two-year colleges either duplicating or outsourcing some general ed programs.
Other costs could arise from such a consolidation, too, CPE said, like the technical system transferring all student records over to the regional institutions.
The CPE instead said the two-year system should develop a strategy to engage with employers, as well as find ways to ease barriers for transfer and institute “more robust” program reviews “focused on return on investment.” It also suggested the system seek unified accreditation, instead of piecemeal approval for each institution. This would try to ease administrator burden and align programs across campuses.
“CPE's recommendation to keep our academic programs intact is in the best interest of our students, local communities and the state's mission to develop a more highly skilled workforce to meet growing employer demand,” the system’s acting president, Larry Ferguson, said in an emailed statement Monday.
A new four-year college?
The council also weighed in on a potential new four-year college in Southeast Kentucky.
Opening a new college would break national trends, which has seen several colleges — even prominent institutions and public flagships like West Virginia University — scaling back in the face of budget crunches.
The CPE identified a higher ed desert in an area called the Kentucky River Area Development District. It said while this was a high-commute area, the district lacked a university, public or private.
However, constructing a new comprehensive college would likely prove costly, the CPE said.
It mulled over other options, like creating a satellite campus for an existing institution. But that prospective college would likely be starved for “adequate resources and attention, especially since satellite services are often the first target for cuts,” the summary said.
Private institutions in the Southeast region of the state have also expressed little interest in joining a public system, the council said.
It instead urged consideration of new approaches involving one of the state’s two-year institutions in the Southeast, Hazard Community and Technical College.
The state could allow Hazard to offer select bachelor’s degrees, though the council noted other two-year colleges would also likely demand to expand their academic offerings.
The council tentatively backed the idea of transforming Hazard into an institution that could run both sub-baccalaureate technical programs and a few bachelor’s degrees. Constructing a residential facility there that could accommodate 96 beds would cost about $18.2 million, the council said.
But it also said more analysis of the concept is needed. It also supported making the University Center of the Mountains a more attractive option for students. The center is a consortium of two- and four-year colleges seeking to bring online bachelor’s and master’s programs to the region.
However, the consortium “would be unlikely to produce the kinds of economic impacts a stand-alone institution would,” the council said.