A new state program makes it likely your Kansas student could go to community college basically for free

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to lower the cost of higher education in Kansas.

Just create a program that gives two free years of education to future rocket scientists.

And to elementary teachers and health care workers and IT professionals and dozens of other technical and blue collar professions as well.

Kansas lawmakers indeed have created such a scholarship program, and the Kansas Board of Regents is close to creating a companion program that is expected to make it easier and cheaper for students to transfer to the state’s four-year degree programs.

The programs’ implications for the University of Kansas could be large in the future, but currently the battle to lower the cost of higher education is being waged on a front that is sometimes overlooked in Kansas — community colleges and technical education schools.

That makes good sense to some of the state’s higher education leaders.

“Community colleges are the first points of entry for some of those people we really are trying to reach with higher education,” Cheryl Harrison-Lee, the incoming chair for the Kansas Board of Regents, said at a recent meeting. Education leaders note that community colleges often have higher percentages of minority and ethnically diverse student populations.

The more dramatic — and certain — of the two programs simply provides scholarships that pay up to 30 months of full tuition to Kansas community college students, if students are Kansas residents and are willing to live with a couple of strings that come attached with the money.

The biggest string is that they will live and work in Kansas for at least two years after they complete their higher education.

The program is called the Promise Act, and it provides $10 million worth of scholarships for the next school year, which on the state calendar begins July 1.

The second program is still in a test stage, but Regents made it clear they are eager to make it a permanent part of the state’s higher education landscape. The program would eliminate the current rule that to get a four-year bachelor’s degree at one of the state’s public universities, you must take at least 60 credit hours at a four-year university.

The proposed program would allow some students to take many classes at a two-year community college and successfully transfer them to a four-year college. In some cases that would allow a student to take as few as 45 hours at a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree.

With the cost of a credit hour at KU, for instance, well over $300, a student could easily save about $5,000 on university tuition as a result of the program.

Regents earlier this month came very close to creating the credit transfer program and mandating it for all six of the Regents universities — KU, K-State, Emporia State, Wichita State, Fort Hays State and Pittsburg State. Ultimately the board held off after some university presidents asked for a little more time to consider all the implications. But the Regents made it clear they are only going to wait so long.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is going to work,” Regent Shane Bangerter said.

Here’s a look in more detail at the two programs.

Promise scholarships

A rocket scientist probably isn’t the most likely profession that will benefit from the Promise Scholarship program, but it sure might. The program creates four study areas that are eligible for the scholarships: information technology and security; physical and mental health care; early childhood education and development; and advanced manufacturing and building trades.

Those four categories allow for a pretty broad range of eligible degrees. For instance, the program would provide a nearly full ride at Allen Community College for an associate degree in pre-engineering, because that field fits in the advanced manufacturing and building trades division. With that associate degree, you could enter an engineering school with your first two years of college paid for while you complete the more advanced classes to become that rocket scientist.

There’s also associate degrees in pre-medicine that qualify, along with pharmacy technician degrees, associate degrees in elementary education, various counseling degrees, multiple health care fields, and many degrees related to the construction and manufacturing fields. In total, the Kansas Board of Regents this month approved a 37-page list of scholarship-eligible degree programs for 33 community colleges, technical schools and a handful of private institutions.

In addition to the four broad study areas that are specified in the act, the law also allows each school to designate one other program that is eligible for the Promise Scholarships. Schools added a range of programs under that provision, including degrees or certificate programs in: criminal justice studies and law enforcement; natural gas transmission technicians; fire sciences; agricultural production and services; diesel technology; power plant technology; veterinary nursing; sign language interpretation; graphic design; paralegal; commercial truck driving; grain elevator operator; logistics, and several others.

The program was approved during the state’s last legislative session, but hasn’t yet gotten much attention from the general public. That may soon change. With the approval of the program lists this month, community colleges and technical schools will now be able to fully market the scholarships to prospective students.

Many higher education leaders are guessing parents and students are going to like what they find with the program because it takes care of many expenses traditional scholarships don’t cover.

“The scholarship is really nice because it not only covers tuition, but also covers fees and books,” said Scott Smathers, the Kansas Board of Regents’ vice president for workforce development. “For most students that really should just leave them with transportation and living expenses.”

The scholarship even covers equipment costs for the vocational programs — think specialty tools and such — that can tally a thousand dollars or more in some cases.

Qualifications for the scholarships also are pretty broad. The main qualification is that you must be a Kansas resident and have graduated from a Kansas high school or received a GED. You also can qualify without a Kansas high school diploma if you are at least 21 years old and have been a Kansas resident for three consecutive years.

The big requirement is that students must live and work in Kansas for two years after graduation. They can delay that two year-period by continuing their education elsewhere, but after they are done with schooling, the two-year requirement would still apply. If the requirement isn’t met, the student would have to pay back the scholarship money, although it is not yet clear how the state is going to track whether the requirement was met.

Another potential scenario that could create a payback requirement is if the student doesn’t complete the degree program within 30 months. State leaders acknowledge that can be a risk. There has been some talk of getting some legislative changes to the program in future years that further address the payback scenarios.

There are some income guidelines as well, but they aren’t too restrictive. For a family of two — a parent and child, for instance — you can’t have a household income of more than $100,000. For a family of three, the household limit is $150,000 and for a family of four it is $154,800.

Smathers said the program will be a good way for students who qualify for Pell grants to pay for expenses that aren’t covered by Pell dollars. But importantly, he said the relatively high income limits will allow many people who make too much money under the Pell system to qualify for a scholarship.

“We think it is definitely broad enough to cover a lot of families,” Smathers said. “We think that is what makes it so good.”

Or at least one of the things. While the program has a lot of two-year technical degree programs, it also has multiple “transfer programs” that are eligible for scholarships. Those are two-year programs where the the student is likely to continue their education for another two years at a university. The Promise Scholarships won’t cover the final two years of schooling at a university, but it could put families in a position of paying for only two years of a four-year degree.

Smathers thinks that idea will spread once high school counselors have a chance to get familiar with the program.

“Obviously this year the high school counselors haven’t been able to talk to students about it because the program was just getting developed,” he said. “It may still boom this year, but it really will boom next year.

“When people find out what this really is, there is going to be a whole bunch of demand for it.”

People interested in applying for the scholarship program will do so through the school they are planning to attend. People can find out more information about the program at kansasregents.org/promiseact

Easier transfers

The second program in the works hopes to do two things to lower education costs — make it less likely that someone takes a class at a community college that won’t transfer to a university, and make it easier to take a larger percentage of classes at a community college as part of a four-year degree.

The basic idea is that tuition and fees at community colleges are generally far less than at universities. For instance, the $336-per-credit-hour fee at KU compares to $35 to $95 per credit hour at most of the state’s community colleges.

The Board of Regents is working to develop a curriculum of 37 to 40 hours of general education classes that could be taken at a community college that would be guaranteed to transfer to Regents universities. Kansas is the only state in the 15-state Midwest region that doesn’t have such a program currently.

But the part of the program that has gotten more discussion is a provision that would allow community colleges to become a bigger part of a four-year degree. Currently, a bachelor’s degree in Kansas requires at least 60 credit hours from a four-year institution. Regents are proposing that the new standard could be 45 hours, with the balance coming from community college courses.

KU has led the way on testing the wisdom of that strategy. KU’s Edwards Campus in Johnson County has partnered with Johnson County Community College to allow students from JCCC to transfer up to 75 credit hours towards select KU degree programs that are offered at the Edwards Campus.

So far the results have been promising, a KU spokeswoman said. The program has produced 28 graduates in its first three semesters. Importantly, there have not been signs that the community college education ill-prepared the students for university work. The students in the transfer program posted a 3.24 GPA, said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman for KU.

“Students who participated in this pilot had higher persistence and graduation rates than our typical transfer students,” she said via email.

With those results, the pilot project is expanding to other universities. Every Regents school except one will have at least one program that it agrees to partner with a community college on. Fort Hays State is not participating in the program. It also is worth noting that KU is not expanding the pilot project to its main Lawrence campus. It will continue the program at the Edwards Campus.

At the Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, some university presidents did urge caution in expanding the program too broadly or too quickly. They want to see the data and how it impacts transfer rates.

Clearly, the program could have negative financial implications for universities. If a greater percentage of students start attending places like KU for only two years instead of four, an already tight financial picture could get much worse.

But Barcomb-Peterson said that possibility hasn’t caused KU to shy away from the program. KU thinks there’s potential to use the program to grow overall enrollment too.

“During the pilot phase at KU Edwards, we continued to see the overall number of students increase, as well as the overall student credit hours,” she said via email. “If the pilot program were to expand, while students may end up taking fewer courses at KU, making transfers more accessible means the potential for more students to choose KU to complete their bachelor’s degree.”

It is likely not a program that any Regents university is going to be able to reject for long, even if it wanted to. Regents came very close at their June meeting of approving the program for all schools to use.

While that hasn’t yet happened, Blake Flanders, president and CEO of the Board of Regents, said he expected that day would happen sooner rather than later.

“I want everybody to understand that we already have had a pilot project, and it worked,” Flanders said. “I would encourage the board to move aggressively on this. I think it will really help our students.”

Scholarship schools

The following community colleges and other institutions are part of the Promise Scholarship program:

• Allen Community College

• Barton Community College

• Butler Community College

• Cloud County Community College

• Coffeyville Community College

• Colby Community College

• Cowley County Community College

• Dodge City Community College

• Fort Scott Community College

• Garden City Community College

• Highland Community College

• Hutchinson Community College

• Independence Community College

• Johnson County Community College

• Kansas City Kansas Community College

• Labette Community College

• Manhattan Area Technical College

• Neosho County Community College

• North Central Kansas Technical College

• Northwest Kansas Technical College

• Pratt Community College

• Salina Area Technical College

• Seward County Community College

• Washburn Institute of Technology

• Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology

• Central Christian College of Kansas

• Cleveland University of Kansas City

• Donnelly College

• Hesston College

• Mid America Nazarene University

• Newman University

• University of Saint Mary


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.