Quarles visits SKYCTC on statewide campus tour | SKYCTC

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Quarles visits SKYCTC on statewide campus tour

Dr Quarles speaking to group from podium.

By MICHAEL J. COLLINS michael.collins@bgdailynews.com

Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Ryan Quarles stopped by Bowling Green on Tuesday during a statewide tour of Kentucky’s 16 community colleges.

Quarles visited faculty and staff at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College for a forum discussing the needs across the region and future priorities as he passes 100 days as president.

“It’s important for me, especially as I start, to listen directly to the faculty and staff that are instructing our students, those that are fixing the air conditioners on our buildings, and also listen to the leadership of our local colleges,” Quarles told the Daily News.

Quarles said those he spoke to wanted “somebody in Frankfort that they know,” to which he said his previous roles as agricultural commissioner and gubernatorial candidate make him well poised for the task.

He also shared his “vision” for KCTCS, founded on three pillars: access, affordability and workforce development.

With access, Quarles hopes to “remain a school for anybody and everybody” whether they be high school dual credit students, traditional students, adult learners and even those pursuing classes through a recovery or correctional facility.

Affordability, Quarles said, is essential to ensuring the system’s place in the educational market.

“When you combine our federal and state needs-based grants, chances are the vast majority of students here at SKY do not pay sticker price,” Quarles said.

“In fact, I believe due to the leadership of (SKYCTC President Philip Neal), most Kentuckians can have a near-free if not free experience here.”

Quarles said workforce development, the final pillar, is also crucial to the system’s future.

“In Bowling Green, there are plenty of jobs and that’s great news, but we need to make sure that we have Kentuckians and workers who are well educated and trained for those jobs,” Quarles said.

“That’s where SKY plays a unique role, especially at the (Kentucky Transpark), where companies every day are utilizing our faculty and facilities to up-skill themselves for the next generation of jobs.”

With the latest General Assembly session coming to a close this week, he thanked the efforts of state lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, for “providing the operational funds that we need to operate across the state.”

He is also thankful for the $9.2 million annual investment in the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program, which offers financial aid to students seeking degrees and certifications in high-demand fields like health care and manufacturing.

Quarles said this combines well with efforts at SKYCTC. He said he was impressed to learn during his visit of several programs with nearly guaranteed job placement after graduation.

“Every health care program I saw today has a 100% or almost guaranteed job placement rate with incredible starting salaries, and some of the programs have starting bonuses of $10- or $20,000,” Quarles said.

“It is simply a different era in Kentucky than before COVID.”

There are still challenges ahead, however. Quarles said work is still underway addressing a “less than flattering” state auditor report that preceded his tenure.

That audit identified seven key issues, including that KCTCS overcharged colleges $24 million since 2018 and failed to track accumulated spending and nepotism decisions required per policy. It also found that a former general counsel had operated without a law license.

The auditor’s office recommended the system review policies, hire outside forensic accounting agencies to better track funds and return money to colleges that were overcharged.

Quarles said his office has so far addressed four of those seven findings and is on track to finish a forensic audit by October.

“It’s important that as we have hundreds of millions of dollars flow through tuition or financial grants, that we are optimizing the use of those resources,” Quarles said.

“We’re going to be including members from all 16 colleges to help us look at academic programming, our workforce development plan, budgeting (and) the fact that we need to have more students transfer to a four-year program.”

Quarles is also preparing for a projected “enrollment cliff” resulting from decreased birthrates during the 2008 recession. The effect will be fewer college-aged people seeking degrees around roughly 2025 and 2026.

He said Bowling Green will be slightly insulated from that impact due to the availability of jobs nearby, but that does not help what he called a “national narrative” that “openly questions the value of going to college.”

“Why should I go spend four or more years of my life to get a degree that has little or nothing to do with the job I’m applying for, and then be saddled with soul-crushing student loan debt that sticks with you for life?” Quarles said.

“That is not the narrative of SKY. We’re going to get you in and out, chances are somebody paid for it or most of it … and we’re going to find an employer that’s going to hire you.”