The following is an op-ed authored by Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU) President OJ Oleka, PhD.
Setting the benchmark of your first 100 days is a good measure for most leaders. It is in those first few months that you get to set the vision, organize your team, and set out to achieve your goals. In my first 100 days as president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU), I have visited all 18 AIKCU campuses and learned how our institutions are changing the lives of Kentucky students, many of whom are low-income students. At AIKCU, we have used those visits to begin developing a plan to expand upon the higher education achievements in Kentucky.
AIKCU promotes public policy in the state house and the nation’s capitol that benefits Kentucky’s private, non-profit, independent colleges and students. One such policy is the Pell grant program, which provides direct, non-loan student aid to low-income students in an effort to eliminate financial barriers to attend college. This program has changed lives across the nation, and here in Kentucky. Contrary to popular perception, Kentucky’s private independent institutions serve a higher percentage of Pell eligible students than public universities. Roughly, 40% of the student population at private universities and colleges in the Commonwealth are Pell-eligible (or receive some Pell funding). Our institutions graduate these low-income students at strong rates – usually within four years – with manageable student loan debt and strong employment outcomes.
AIKCU also manages partnerships among our member colleges and with businesses that are designed to share and lower costs. These partnerships allows our members to save money and reinvest those savings into their students, employees, and communities. It also promotes both student and institutional success, both of which are critical to Kentucky’s future. AIKCU institutions are located in many rural communities where they are economic drivers. Our members educate more than 56,000 students and employ more than 7,000 people, generating a collective annual economic impact of well over $700 million dollars in Kentucky. These institutions are not only critical for the economic vitality of Kentucky, they are a worthwhile investment.
The Kentucky General Assembly knows this, too. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the General Assembly has appropriated over $410 million dollars in the Kentucky Tuition Grant (KTG), a needs-based scholarship for students who attend an AIKCU member institution. The funds for this scholarship are generated from the Kentucky Lottery fund and administered through the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA), meaning this resource is not generated through taxpayer funding. It’s a win/win for the people of Kentucky: low-income students have access to an affordable postsecondary opportunity and taxpayers are not asked to foot the bill.
For our colleges and universities, this is their greatest commitment. While the goals and missions of our institutions vary, each is committed to graduating low-income and first-generation college students and putting them on a path to enter the workforce.
But we are committed to doing more. Since becoming president late last year, I have established a Workforce Development Advisory Council to assist our organization in developing public policy and market-based solutions to independent higher education challenges. We hosted legislative advocacy days in both Frankfort and Washington, D.C., deepening relationships with our federal congressional delegation and state legislature. We have also met with key leaders in Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s office and in President Donald Trump’s administration.
Over the next year, I hope you will join AIKCU as we are just getting started. In the coming months, AIKCU will undergo a strategic planning process, a statewide listening tour, and amplify our direct involvement in improving low-income student outcomes. We will continue to support our colleges and universities in their critical work.
Together, we can build a better Kentucky that has the educated workforce and jobs necessary so individuals, families, and communities can thrive.