Quarles discusses new role heading growing community colleges | SKYCTC

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Quarles discusses new role heading growing community colleges

Exterior of KCTCS system office

“If I do my job well, Kentucky will benefit from our community colleges, because our footprint is like no other — 16 colleges, 70 campuses and locations and 100,000-plus students,” Quarles said. “If Kentucky's economy wants to take off, we need to have a strong community college system.”

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

Many Kentuckians likely recognize Ryan Quarles from his decade-long political career, but the former senator, agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial candidate is settling into a new role: president of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System.

Quarles began as KCTCS president only a month and a half ago, though he already has success to celebrate.

Labor market analytics firm Lightcast released last week an economic impact report showing KCTCS added $3.9 billion in annual income to Kentucky’s economy from 2022 to 2023, equivalent to 1.6% of Kentucky’s gross state product.

The analysis reported 1-in-49 jobs across the state, roughly 54,000, were supported by the community and technical college system.

“Underneath my administration, we're going to be focused on workforce development and economic development for the state as well,” Quarles said. “The Lightcast report is positive news, doesn't tell the whole story, but it shows that when people choose to graduate from one of our programs, they're going to make a lot more money over a lifetime.”

He said the report shows the college system remains relevant to the needs of employers and continues to be a major part of Kentucky’s economic development.

Quarles said his new position is more like a return to higher education after a long hiatus. He holds seven college degrees from the University of Kentucky, Harvard University and Vanderbilt University, where he earned his doctorate in higher education.

“A lot of Kentuckians didn't realize that I had the doctoral work under my belt as well,” Quarles said. “My research at Vanderbilt focused on adult learners at rural community colleges in America, so my capstone project focused on exactly what I'm working on now, and that's community colleges and our successes there.”

He said his focus in the position so far has been threefold: working with state officials on workforce initiatives, lobbying legislators for additional resources and trying to “right the ship” after an audit last year identified mismanaged KCTCS funds.

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, who was not yet president at the time, said the system will engage in a forensic audit this year that will allow them to “wipe the slate clean with a fresh start” by identifying what has gone wrong, which he hopes will finish by the end of the year.

He added they have also begun reviewing the hundreds of degrees, certificates and training offered in the system to ensure they are up-to-date and still relevant to Kentucky’s workforce.

“We also have reason to believe that the forensic audit will hopefully shed some light on some of the financial management decisions here at the system office,” Quarles said. “But I'm an optimistic guy, I'm here to fix what's been found and keep moving forward.”

Quarles, no stranger to the legislature, said he has also spent a fair bit of time in Frankfort as the biennial budget continues to make the rounds.

He has pushed for more funding toward Work Ready Kentucky Scholarships, which will allow Kentuckians with less than an associate's degree to receive education in a variety of technical fields.

“These are scholarships that basically allow students to graduate debt-free in high-demand areas in Kentucky,” Quarles said. “These are areas that the legislature has defined as high demand, and that would include health care, like nurses, (and) business and manufacturing.”

Quarles has also pushed for more KCTCS-TRAINS Funding support, which offers project-based funding to companies to help cover the cost of workforce development and construction.

“Oftentimes, we'll bring our professors to the business to train their employees,” Quarles said. “This allows us to retain those jobs, work with the businesses, be as least disruptive as possible, and that goes directly to help out the private sector.”

Finally, Quarles wants to see more support for dual-credit high school students, which makes up roughly a third of KCTCS enrollees.

“We only charge 50% of the rate for high school students with dual credit, so there's an ask in the budget to help support the funding of dual-credit scholarships,” Quarles said.

Quarles said as higher education navigates an era of major change and disruption, Kentucky needs “one plan for higher education.” He said KCTCS should play a “special role” in the education landscape, not one in competition with other state universities.

He called for continued collaboration between KCTCS and entities like Western Kentucky University, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky, adding that community college offers a uniquely accessible path to higher education and technical training.

“Our community colleges are often the entry point for students that want to go on and get their four-year degree or, in my case, go on and get a law degree or doctoral degree,” Quarles said.

Quarles said he himself took classes at Lexington Community College, now Bluegrass Community and Technical College, before transitioning to other institutions for his degrees.

He said ensuring Kentuckians of all ages can start their higher education journey in KCTCS is crucial to future success, leading to higher pay and better quality of life across industries.

“If I do my job well, Kentucky will benefit from our community colleges, because our footprint is like no other — 16 colleges, 70 campuses and locations and 100,000-plus students,” Quarles said. “If Kentucky's economy wants to take off, we need to have a strong community college system.”