Free community college education bill a potential ‘game changer’ for state

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A bill proposing that the state pay tuition for community college students could be “a game changer” for education in Kentucky, according to officials.

The Work Ready Kentucky program, House Bill 626, would make tuition at Kentucky Community & Technical College System schools free for qualified students after factoring in scholarships and state and federal grants. The bill passed through committee and will be included in the state House budget proposal released next week, said House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green.

“This can be a game changer for a lot of families, especially middle-income families” that make too much money to qualify for full financial aid but can’t afford tuition without getting student loans, said Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College President Phillip Neal. “That’s where the gap is.”

Richards agreed with the assessment of the bill’s potential to change the higher education landscape in the state.

“Absolutely, it’s another step forward,” he said. “Part of the emphasis in this session has been on workforce development. So many jobs are open in this area, and we don’t have trained workers to fill these jobs.”

Neal said education access would be expanded.

“This opens the door to higher education to people across the state who for financial reasons can’t access college,” he said.

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said however that funding the program will be an issue.

“Everyone would love to see something like that, the problem is the state has really, really big issues,” with a $30 billion-plus pension systems shortfall. “I just don’t know where the money will come from,” he said.

The pensions shortfall “has been kicked down the road for the last eight years … . We have to take care of our state retirees and our teacher retirees,” Wilson said.

KCTCS said the program is anticipated to cost about $13 million in the first year and about $20 million in the second year, which would come from the state’s general fund, according to a news release from House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s office.

If its approved, the program would begin this fall, meaning this year?s high school seniors would be the first class to qualify. To qualify, students must be a high school graduate or have a GED before turning 19; be eligible for in-state tuition; enroll in a KCTCS school immediately after high school; take at least 12 college credit hours per semester; maintain a 2.0 GPA or better; and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

KCTCS has 16 colleges with 70 campuses across the state serving more than 80,000 students, according to the KCTCS website. SKyCTC has 8,000 to 9,000 degree-seeking students.

“Right now because the economy has been so good, enrollment is down. A lot of our older students have gone back to work,” Neal said.

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