When Lana Bennett graduated from high school, she wanted to continue her education at a school with small class sizes and a low cost.

Basically, she was looking for something other than the typical college. That’s when she turned to the local technical school.  

In an economy when jobs are scarce and money for college is even sparser, two-year colleges trump four-year universities in Kentucky when it comes to student success and affordability, according to the Leaders & Laggards report card on public postsecondary education, which was recently released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Every few years, the organization ranks education systems in each state, ranging from elementary schools to colleges, giving them letter grades similar to a school report card. Kentucky four-year institutions made a D in two of four categories: retention and completion rates, and the costs of completing a degree.

Meanwhile, two-year institutions scored an A in cost and a B in retention and completion.

Kentucky is among the bottom 10 states when it comes to local and state funding for students attending four-year colleges – on average, students at those colleges receive a total of $54,504 in state and local funds, while it costs an average of nearly $72,000 to finish.

On the other hand, two-year colleges in Kentucky are among the top 10 in the nation when it comes to funding – it costs an average of more than $38,000 to complete a two-year degree, and a student gets an average of more than $19,500 from state and local sources, the report said.

“My parents aren’t helping me pay for school; it’s me,” said Bennett, a student at Bowling Green Technical College. “My financial aid has paid for all my tuition ... if I had went to (a university), I would have been in debt a really long time.”

Bennett, of Bowling Green, also likes the small class sizes, which allow her to ask more questions and receive better attention from her teachers, she said.

When Heather Lawrence of Bowling Green was looking to get her degree in medical information technology, cost was a huge issue.

Lawrence, a married mother of two children, was initially surprised that financial aid not only paid her tuition at BGTC, but it also covered her textbooks with some money left over. Now, she plans to use her degree to work in a hospital or doctor’s office.

“Without the financial aid, there was no way I could finish college and obtain a degree,” she said.

That’s a big reason two-year schools, such as BGTC, scored well when it comes to the number of students who stay and complete degrees. They ranked in the top 10 nationally in terms of the number of college credits students earn. Meanwhile, student success – retention, completion and the number of credits produced – at Kentucky’s four-year schools was “well below the national medians,” the report said.

At Western Kentucky University, officials say they are looking to boost their retention rate – about 74 percent of WKU students continue after their freshman year – to 80 percent.

“We’re putting a great deal of effort and time and resources into bumping that number up,” said Brian Meredith, associate vice president of enrollment management. “It’s a good number, but we want to make it much higher.”

A retention task force has reviewed the biggest problems that keep students from earning their degrees from WKU, from financial to personal struggles, officials said.

The major reasons students drop out are homesickness and, increasingly, financial problems. So, university faculty members are beefing up student advising, implementing “intense advising.” Advisers not only give students academic advice, but they also help with financial and personal problems, officials said.

And while the report card highlights a lack of state and local funding, university officials say federal money is a problem.

For example, federal Pell Grants were once offered to students during their fall, spring and summer semesters, but they are now available only for the fall and spring semesters, said Sharon Hunter, college readiness coordinator at WKU.

“For first-generation, or students right there on the cusp of the low-to-average socio-economic status, that makes it difficult for them to continue their education,” Hunter said.  

At Kentucky four-year institutions, 33.8 percent of students receive Pell Grants, compared with 67 percent at two-year schools, the report said.

And more students are dropping out of WKU to work because they need the money, Meredith said.

The funding problem has taken colleges and universities “by storm,” Meredith said, and it’s difficult to find a solution. However, WKU is looking to give students an alternative payment plan, which would give certain students more time to pay their tuition and fees, Meredith said.

Additionally, students who earn the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship must maintain a certain college GPA to keep getting those funds, and WKU will implement tutoring programs to help students remain eligible for KEES money, Hunter said.

“WKU is trying to be creative in scholarships and financial packages in the last academic year,” Meredith said, “but we can’t save everybody all the time.”  

WKU officials also are taking their retention efforts to high schools and middle schools, surveying students to determine their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging students to take rigorous courses while in high school and partnering with administrators to better prepare children for college.

About 48 percent of students in the last graduating class took at least one developmental college course – a class that prepares students for college-level courses and does not count toward their degree, Hunter said.

“We want them to explore what they are interested in,” she said, “instead of doing work that could have been and should have been completed in high school.”

Those who get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year Kentucky institution make an average $17,300 – or 59 percent – more than those with high school diplomas, the report card said.

In fact, meeting labor market demand is the only category in which four-year schools trumped two-year colleges. Four-year institutions made a C, while two-year schools received a D. Kentucky graduates with associate’s degrees make $8,500 – or 29 percent – more than high school graduates, according to the report card.

For that reason, many students get their general education credits at two-year colleges and then transfer to four-year schools.

That’s what Bennett plans to do. The BGTC student plans to pursue a psychology degree, but she wanted to begin her college education at the technical school, she said.

“It’s the same education, and I think it’s totally worth it,” Bennett said, “to not just get thrown into the college life.”

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