By Laura Matravers and Rachel Gramer, with Mary P. Sheridan
Kentucky’s push for free community college has made headlines in recent news, local (Gerth; Kenning) and national (Smith, “The Next Domino”; “Kentucky Budget”). In April, Governor Bevin vetoed House Bill 626, delaying “Work Ready Kentucky” scholarships (Smith, “Delayed Promise”) that might have funded qualifying high school graduates for up to two years of postsecondary education beginning in 2016-17. The one-year delay leaves intact $15.9 million in the budget for 2017-18, and gives time for lawmakers to work out logistics, including criteria for eligibility and renewal.
Kentucky’s program is part of a growing trend of making higher education more affordable. It was modeled after Tennessee Promise, a program providing eligible students with two tuition-free years at community colleges. The first bill of its kind (Gang), Tennessee Promise was signed into law by Governor Haslam in 2014, growing out of the success of Knox Achieves (Taylor; “Knox Achieves”). Since its implementation, other states have followed with similar programs (NCSL, “Free Community College”), and President Obama recently announced his America’s College Promise proposal (Obama; DePillis).
The push for increased access to higher education is rooted in economic interests; Tennessee Promise is part of a campaign to strengthen the state’s workforce (“Drive to 55”), and Work Ready Kentucky has similar goals (Gerth). If implemented, Kentucky’s program will likely result in increased enrollment at community colleges, benefiting colleges and local communities, and is expected to improve the overall quality of life in the state (Lawrence). In light of recent budget cuts (Pugel), though, it is unclear where funding and resources to sufficiently support such growth will come from, and whether colleges are equipped to handle excessive growth in student enrollment (see “Skin in the Game”).
Unfortunately, Governor Bevin’s budget cuts for 2016-17 also eliminated other need-based funding for higher education students (Loftus, “Bevin Delays”), and Bevin is facing potential challenges in the form of lawsuits from a state representative (Loftus, “Stumbo”) and state attorney general (Douglas-Gabriel).
The delay for free community college in Kentucky leaves us with questions that still need to be answered by educators, lawmakers, and other stakeholders:
What can we learn from other national movements for equitable access to education, contemporary (as described above) and historical (e.g., open admissions)?
What are the immediate and long-term consequences (e.g., financial, curricular) of free two-year college tuition, for our workforce, student population, and individual institutions?
How will “Work Ready Kentucky” be financially sustained by the state, given the general evacuation of federal educational support?
How might this move intersect with other current educational trends (e.g., accelerated learning, competency based education)?
What support will “Work Ready Kentucky” provide students once they enroll in college? What needs to change in campus cultures to help students succeed?
Kentucky House Bill 626:
Overviews and updates on free community college state legislation: