Editorial: States explore expanding aid for community college students

April 22, 2016

Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio all would benefit from higher education levels.

But our states face a particular crunch in the "middle skills" area – technicians, nurses and a host of other jobs that require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree.

For example, about 60 percent of the jobs in Kentucky are considered "middle skills jobs," but only about 48 percent of the workforce is trained to that level, according to the National Skills Coalition. The figures for West Virginia and Ohio are very similar.

Yet, all three states are struggling to move more students from high school into community college and other associate degree programs that could help fill that gap. Only about 50 percent to 55 percent of high school graduates go on to any level of college, and the completion rate is low – less than 50 percent at the four-year college level and less than 40 percent for community colleges.

Lack of academic preparation is certainly a factor, but another big problem is money.

Students without family support are often scared off by tuition costs and loans, and many of those who enroll have a hard time with the costs, with about 20 percent eventually defaulting on their student loan.

In an effort to overcome those obstacles, Kentucky may soon join about 12 other states that are experimenting with some variation of "free" community college tuition for qualifying students. The bill approved by the legislature this spring would commit about $25 million to a "last dollar" scholarship program, meaning the funds would cover only what other state and federal scholarships do not.

To be eligible, Kentucky high school graduates must take 15 credit hours per semester and maintain a cumulative 2.5 grade point average. If the student does not finish the semester or has a lower GPA, he or she could be required to repay the scholarship.

The bill still needs to gain the signature of new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, but if it goes forward, it will be an important effort to watch.

West Virginia has all of the same challenges with an under-skilled workforce, falling community college enrollment and too many young people entering the workforce with limited opportunities. On average, a worker with the right associate degree can earn 30 percent to 40 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma, and investing in that education can pay for the student and the community.