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WKU retention aided by policy change
 Aaron Mudd  / 

Western Kentucky University has been touting recent gains in retaining students through efforts like streamlining advising and retooling financial aid. But some of the increased retention stems from a change related to allowing students who are overdue on university bills to register for classes.

Last semester, WKU largely dropped a policy that kept students from registering for the following semester’s classes if they were carrying outstanding balances. While some still owed tuition, most students were locked out of registering because of minor overdue fees.

WKU officials declined to say exactly how much of the increased retention was due to that change.

Brian Kuster, WKU’s vice president for enrollment and student experience, said the unpaid bills could range from an unpaid parking ticket to a course-change fee or other bills students might have incurred since attending.

“One student owed six cents and had a hold so they couldn’t register,” Kuster told the Daily News. While students worked out payments, they missed out on registering for important classes that filled up quickly, Kuster said.

Now, Kuster said, the university no longer puts registration holds on students with a past due balance of $1,000 or less.

The change is having an impact on hundreds of students, Kuster said.

In October, when the policy was changed, Kuster estimated there were close to 600 students who would have been affected by the policy.

But because of the change “They were able to register on time and have the biggest selection of classes to continue their education,” Kuster said.

In early December, Kuster said, there were 396 students with outstanding balances less than $1,000. Since then, about half have been able to pay off those balances, Kuster said. When classes began this spring, 215 students had unpaid balances, he said.

On Friday, when Assistant Vice President for Student Success Christopher Jensen discussed new retention efforts with the university’s Board of Regents, he described a micro-grant program that helped some students reduce their outstanding balances. In one case, WKU awarded 22 micro-grants to underrepresented minority students to help them reduce their bills below $1,000.

“That was a huge impact and helped those students,” he said.

For WKU President Timothy Caboni, the policy change is a no-brainer. In a recent interview, he described the idea of a student being barred from registering because of a delinquent parking ticket as “completely absurd.”

“For $25, we’ve said to a student, ‘You can’t register and come and pay $5,000 in tuition,’ ” Caboni said. “That is the dumbest business decision I’ve ever heard of.”

Last month, at the start of the spring semester, Caboni announced in a faculty and staff email that more first-year students returned to the Hill for their second semester this year than in 2017.

“Our first- to second-semester persistence rate for the fall 2018 first-time, first-year student cohort is up 4 percent to 86.5 percent from 82.5 percent when compared with 2017,” Caboni wrote in the message, referring to this year’s class.

While cautioning that the retention numbers were preliminary, Caboni wrote that the university also saw “even larger gains” of low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students in this academic year’s first-time, first-year class.

“This builds on the first to second year persistence gains we realized this past fall,” he added.

Asked how influential the financial policy change was on the retention increase, Caboni said “There are a range of strategies that we’ve put in place to ensure that folks can be successful.”

Part of that includes efforts to adopt “centralized advising,” Caboni said.

“Meaning, advising is not just about course taking. It’s about all of the other support structures that young people need to be successful,” he said. The university’s advising process now includes mental health referrals if needed, as one example, Caboni said.

Additionally, Caboni said WKU has changed how it offers financial aid to help bridge the gap between what students in need can and can’t afford. When students leave school, he said, the reason is most often about finances.

“The honest truth is that there are students that we’ve admitted that are more able to afford the WKU experience now than in previous years because we’ve shifted our aid strategy,” he said.

And with more low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students, Caboni said WKU is doing a better job of helping them navigate the college experience.

In his previous email, he credited new retention efforts such as the Kelly M. Burch Institute and the Intercultural Student Engagement Center, which were “designed to help students make progress to graduation through a combination of support, engagement and mentorship,” he wrote.

In speaking with the Daily News, Caboni framed the registration policy change as just one of many efforts to improve retention.

“We need a business model that’s focused on the success of our students and getting them to graduation,” Caboni said. “Not collecting $25 in parking fees.”

Like Caboni, Kuster framed the policy change as just one factor influencing the retention rate increase.

He credited improvements to advising and more faculty participation in fifth week assessments of students, which evaluate students’ academic performance and offer a chance to take corrective action. Closing WKU’s University College and bringing those students back into the campus community has also helped, Kuster said.

In general, Kuster said campus stakeholders understand it’s their job to recruit, retain and graduate students.

“People understand it’s one student at a time and those relationships are important,” he said.

Bac Totrong / Bac Totrong/Daily News  

Participants begin their run Saturday, February 9, 2019, in Community Options’ Cupid’s Chase 5K race at Lovers Lane Soccer Complex. (Bac Totrong/

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Cool runnings: Cupid Chase reaches goal despite frigid weather
 Don Sergent  / 

Runners in Cupid’s Chase could feel the love Saturday, even if they couldn’t feel their toes. Cupid Valentino made sure of that.

On a frigid morning better suited to bobsledding or curling, more than 100 runners and walkers turned out at the Lovers Lane Soccer Complex for the sixth annual 5-kilometer event to benefit Community Options of Bowling Green.

That met the goal set by Community Options, which provides residential and employment services to some 30 local people with disabilities.

“The turnout was great,” said Tabitha Tittle, coordinator of program services for the Bowling Green Community Options office. “We were hoping for 100 runners, and we had about 106. It was very chilly, so we definitely appreciate people coming out.”

Many of the runners who came out on a day when the temperature was 23 degrees at start time were there because of that Cupid Valentino character, who goes by the name of Harlan Holmes when he isn’t dressing in costume for 5K events.

Most of the runners were dressed in layers, but not Holmes, a 32-year-old Bowling Green resident who was toting a Cupid-esque toy bow.

A regular at local road races, Holmes showed up Saturday carrying a red rose and dressed in red shorts, red shoes and red socks, with nothing on his torso but a pair of Cupid-like wings.

It was Holmes’ first Cupid’s Chase, which was held Saturday in conjunction with 5Ks benefiting more than 40 Community Options offices in 11 states on the 30th anniversary of the nonprofit.

“They do advocacy and support for people with disabilities, so I figured it was a wonderful cause,” Holmes said. “Plus, I like any excuse to wear a costume.”

Holmes’ enthusiasm for the event brought out others who were part of the Team Cupid that he formed. Some, like Amy Parker, even donned costumes of their own.

“Harlan started Team Cupid, and we thought it would be fun to dress up together,” said Parker, an active duty National Guard member who was sporting red-tinted glasses and wearing a red skirt over her black tights and long-sleeved shirt. “Harlan has been inspiring to a lot of runners.”

Like Holmes, Parker said the opportunity to support a good cause brought her out on a day when the course included a few frozen puddles.

“If I do a 5K, I like to do those that support a good cause,” she said.

Holmes, who dressed as Hulk Hogan and won last fall’s Superhero 5K to benefit Bowling Green’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, said local runners are always quick to support worthy causes.

“We have a very generous and compassionate running community,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of it.”

Despite the handicap of wearing wings that weren’t particularly aerodynamic, Holmes finished fourth in Saturday’s race.

The winner, 23-year-old Jonah Strauel of Casey County, said: “It was so cold it was hard to breathe. The 5K is not my favorite distance. I like the longer races, but it’s always nice to run for a good cause.”

Top female finisher Shanda Blair could feel the cold through her shoes, but she said: “I love running races that are for good causes. This is a great event. It’s just not that well-known.”

Tittle said this was the second time the race had been held at the soccer complex after four years at Kereiakes Park. With pre-registration costing $35 and race-day registration costing $40, it is the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

Second church reports vandalism to property
 Don Sergent  / 

A second Warren County church has reported vandalism to its property during the past week.

St. James United Methodist Church Pastor Chris Patterson said vandals spray-painted late Thursday night or early Friday morning what he described as a “male body part” on a Boy Scout trailer that was in the parking lot of the church on Winfield Drive near Cemetery Road. They also partially spray-painted over an image of an American flag on the trailer, according to Patterson.

That report follows news that vandals had spray-painted messages on Burton Memorial Baptist Church at 4377 Cemetery Road. The messages were discovered Friday and included an image of an upside-down cross and the message “GOD’S NOT REAL” in capital letters.

Another spray-painted message at Burton Memorial contained a racial slur and a smiley face in the parking lot.

Patterson said security cameras at St. James captured images of two people involved in the vandalism, one driving a car and the other doing the spray-painting. He has shared the video footage with the Bowling Green Police Department.

The pastor said the incident happened around midnight Thursday. He believes the presence of the surveillance camera may have caused the vandals to leave.

“They pulled up toward the building,” he said. “Then I think they saw the camera and left.”

Patterson speculates that the two incidents may be related.

“The timing is such that I think the two happened at around the same time,” he said. “I think they hit us first and then drove out of town.”

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the Burton Memorial incident. The BGPD is investigating the St. James incident, according to Patterson.

“I hope the police department and the sheriff’s office can figure out who did it,” Patterson said. “I hope that this is nothing more than two juveniles doing idiotic things.”

Austin Anthony 

Timothy Caboni

Bac Totrong / Bac Totrong/Daily News  

Harlan Holmes runs Saturday, February 9, 2019, in Community Options’ Cupid’s Chase 5K race at Lovers Lane Soccer Complex. (Bac Totrong/

Bowling Green's smoking ordinance marks eight years
 Caroline Eggers  / 

The American Lung Association grades all states annually on their tobacco policies, and each year Kentucky receives among the lowest grades.

Kentucky earned an F for what the association said is its inadequate tobacco prevention and cessation funding, smoke-free air and tobacco taxes, and a failure to raise the minimum smoking age to 21. The Bluegrass State did receive a C for its access to cessation services – which experts attribute to Medicaid.

In Bowling Green, city officials banned smoking in city parks, workplaces and enclosed public spaces by 2011.

“The whole intent of the clean indoor air ordinance was to address the unattended victims of smoking,” said Bowling Green City Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash, who said there hasn’t been any additional discussion of the ordinance during his time as commissioner.

Since implementation, there have been a total of 25 citations for smoking unlawfully. The majority of citations occurred early, then people began to understand the law, according to Bowling Green Police Department spokesman Officer Ronnie Ward.

“We don’t have those complaints anymore,” Ward said. “This isn’t something we drive around checking, we respond to those as we receive complaints.”

After initial culture shock, Nash believes the measure became a no-brainer. While he witnesses people breaking the city’s smoking ordinances from time to time, “the vast majority” are following the rules respectfully.

“It really has just become part of our community,” Nash said. “It’s become who we are in Bowling Green.”

During Nash’s time as commissioner, there hasn’t been an additional discussion of the clean indoor air ordinance.

But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be additional measures introduced in the future, he said.

Aligning with the American Lung Association’s smoke-free guidelines, many cities – and states – prohibit smoking within 15 to 25 feet from public buildings. In Arizona, there is a statewide ban on smoking cigarettes within 20 feet of a workplace. In New Mexico, smokers can’t light up within 50 feet of an enclosed workplace, restaurant or bar.

In Bowling Green, Nash believes this kind of regulation would benefit the community – if businesses get on board.

“I wish there was a way to fairly include that into the ordinance,” he said. “Clearly, anyone that is standing directly to the door and is smoking is not honoring the spirit of the clean indoor air ordinance.”

When a city allows cigarette smoking in public spaces, it’s allowing secondhand smoke.

Secondhand smoke poses threats to everyone exposed. For children, it can cause sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, colds, pneumonia, bronchitis and severe asthma, and harms the development of a children’s lungs. For pregnant women, it can cause pregnancy complications, poor birth outcomes, preterm deliveries and low birth weights. For adults, it can cause premature death, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Basically, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Within five minutes, secondhand smoke stiffens the aorta as much as smoking a cigarette. In 20 to 30 minutes, it causes excess blood clotting and the buildup of fat deposits in blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. In two hours, it increases the chance of irregular heartbeat and can trigger a fatal cardiac event or heart attack, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that tobacco use should be prohibited in all public indoor and outdoor spaces.

This science is clear. But changing engrained behaviors is complex, Nash said.

The desire to be healthy and the actionable steps taken to be healthy don’t usually equate. “We understand the science that (cigarettes or junk food) is bad for us,” Nash said, but “we’re wired to think oh it won’t happen to us, or we’ll start tomorrow.”

That requires a cultural change, according to Nash.

“Cultural encouragement or discouragement tends to influence people’s decision about it,” Nash said.

In an idealized future, a cultural shift would include city residents ridding their habit of dropping cigarette butts on the ground. “It makes our community look so bad,” Nash said.

Tobacco litter also floods storm drains, and drives up the cost of treatment, according to Bowling Green environmental manager Matt Powell.

“It is unbelievable how many of those things are out there,” Powell said. “There’s absolutely no distinction between cigarette butts and any other type of trash.”

But Nash doesn’t think an additional ordinance would solve the issue of tobacco litter because it would be difficult to enforce, as police officers would have to see someone actively throwing a cigarette on the ground in order to write a citation.

Instead, Nash thinks it would be more effective to educate the public on tobacco litter’s effect on stormwater. “Anything you throw on the ground eventually ends up in our water,” he said.

Eventually, the culture could change further.

In Hawaii, lawmakers have proposed bipartisan legislation to incrementally raise the minimum age to use cigarettes to 100 – by 2024.