“Commit to life-learning.”
That is the parting message from Jay Box as he retires this September as president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
“Our society tends to ‘package’ education into age brackets: high school diploma awarded by the time you are 18, a community college degree by the time you’re 20, and a four-year baccalaureate degree by the age of 22,” Box said. “The thought is that once you get that college degree at 20 or 22, you can go to work and never have to worry about school ever again. But the idea that you are finished with education by 22 just isn’t the reality.
“Today, jobs are constantly morphing. So the day you get that first job, you ought to be asking yourself, ‘What additional education am I going to need to evolve with my career?’ It might not be another degree, but you need to commit to continuous learning.”
Working and learning
Box has followed his own advice in four roles during his 18-year career within the KCTCS system. He began his career as president of Hazard Community and Technical College president from 2002 to 2007.
His greatest accomplishment at HCTC? It required acting on what he saw, creatively seizing an opportunity, and following through—all components of success in any job.
According to Box, his biggest accomplishment during those five years was the establishment of the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music (KSBTM) located in Hyden.
“Bluegrass music seems to be in the blood of all of those who grow up in Appalachia,” Box said. “When I took over as the HCTC president, I kept hearing of the proud tradition of Bluegrass music in the Hazard region. But there was no college-level music program that was focused on training folks to work in the Bluegrass music industry—either as a performer, a composer or a technician.
“I established a national advisory committee and charged them with researching and designing a Bluegrass music program tailored for a rural community college. They came back with a comprehensive program design for the KSBTM. I took the program proposal through the appropriate internal approval processes, and HCTC received KCTCS Board of Regents approval to start the school in 2007.
“The advisory committee requested that the school be located at HCTC’s Leslie County Center located in Hyden, home of the world-famous Bluegrass artists, the Osborne Brothers. After 13 years, the KSBTM has received national recognition and has students enrolled from across the nation.”
The future: online and competency-based
Box’s next role was as KCTCS vice president over technology solutions from 2007-2009 and he spent much of that time working to develop a new way to deliver online education.
“I established an internal working group to research the current trends in online education,” he said. “They suggested that KCTCS create a new competency-based model that was gaining popularity in several parts of the country. In 2009, KCTCS launched Learn on Demand (LoD). Our new, innovative LoD model took our traditional 16-week courses and ‘chunked’ them down to small, learning modules that could be completed in as little as three weeks once a student could demonstrate the knowledge of the module’s competencies.
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“A typical course would have four to five modules. Students were allowed to start taking a LoD module on any Monday, continue at their own pace and once completed move on to the next module. The LoD model has allowed students to accelerate the completion of courses and programs, shortening the time to a degree.
“KCTCS became one of the founding members of the national Competency-Based Education Network, which includes other more-recognized members such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University. After starting with less than 10% of our course offerings delivered through LoD, KCTCS is now beginning a process to move all of our online programming to a competency-based model.”
Taking care of details
There was a serious problem that affected students mightily when Box became KCTCS chancellor in 2009: KCTCS graduates were losing college credit when transferring to a university.
“The universities’ provosts and I began working together to solve that problem,” Box said. “We first worked with key legislators to write legislation that would require that KCTCS college courses be accepted without question by our public universities. The legislation passed in 2010. We then established faculty working groups, consisting of both university and KCTCS faculty, who were charged with aligning learning outcomes in KCTCS general education courses with the similar courses at the universities. The result was that all of KCTCS general education courses can now be seamlessly transferred to any of Kentucky’s public universities.”
Watching it all come together
Box became the second president of KCTCS in mid-January 2015 when Michael McCall retired. After a search process and interviews with several finalists, Box was the regents’ unanimous choice. He is retiring with over five years in the leadership post.
“While serving as KCTCS president, I have been most proud of the increases in student success (number of college credentials earned, shortening of the time to degree, expansion of dual credit, establishing the GED+ program, etc.) that have resulted in better lives for our graduates, a more skilled and educated Kentucky workforce, and national recognition for our system.”
But in the midst of those successes, along came a pandemic. Even so, Box believes KCTCS will come out of the pandemic as a much stronger institution.
“We have learned so much about how to be innovative in the delivery of our coursework and our student services in a virtual world,” he said. “We’ve also learned that we can be a little more flexible with staff workloads as we have seen some advantages with remote working assignments. And, we have learned the value of social interaction—even if it is conducted virtually—to keeping employees and students engaged and morale high.”
What would he do differently?
“I’m a native Texan,” Box said, “and as most people know, Texans are very proud of their state. There is a saying quite popular by people who moved to Texas from another state: ‘I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as quick as I could.’
“I feel the same way about working for KCTCS. I wasn’t here when KCTCS got started in 1998, but I got here as quick as I could. I’m extremely proud of my accomplishments at KCTCS. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed all of my 18 years at KCTCS and I don’t believe I would do anything differently.”
The one that got away
Although he wouldn’t do anything differently, Box did have a challenge he was not able to meet—getting the General Assembly to reinvest in higher education with a substantial increase in state appropriations.
“At the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, all the stars seemed aligned as the budget developed and approved and each chamber was going to include an increase in funding for all of us in higher education,” Box said. “But before the budget could be passed, the pandemic hit. The legislature ended up passing a one-year budget that was scaled back and did not include the substantial increases in funding that we had hoped.”
Even so, Box believes KCTCS’s mission is just as relevant now as ever.
“We remain the most affordable option for higher education in Kentucky. Additionally, KCTCS has been ranked among the top 10 community college state systems in the nation for two years in a row based on the percentage of students who earn a college credential. What that means is our students aren’t just going to college, they are completing college.
“And most importantly, they are earning credentials that are useful for the graduate and valued by Kentucky’s employers. As we like to say, we are creating better lives for our students that lead to a better Kentucky.” ■
The Toughest Challenges
We asked Jay Box what he considered the top challenges he faced as president of KCTCS and how he responded to each. Here are his answers:
• Reduction in state funding. The commonwealth’s budgets have been stressed over the last decade and certainly haven’t improved during my 5 1/2-year tenure as KCTCS president. Unfortunately, KCTCS and all our public universities have taken a hit on state appropriations.
Kentucky used to provide 77.2% of the funding necessary to educate a community college student. This last year, the state’s investment declined to 43.4%. The challenge for me was to make sure KCTCS continued to provide a quality education for our students without putting the cost on the backs of our students. I am proud to say KCTCS kept tuition increases to a minimum during my tenure. Our tuition remains approximately half that of Kentucky’s four-year public universities. And we have maintained quality education by becoming much more efficient in our operations.
• Impact of COVID-19. Never did I think in December 2019 when I announced my retirement that Kentucky would be dealing with an international pandemic by mid-spring of 2020. Our colleges were forced to move to a remote learning environment to complete the spring semester. Fortunately, approximately 65% of our students were enrolled in at least one online course, so moving them to all online instruction was not a huge challenge.
As the pandemic continued, however, the real impact has become more and more prevalent. KCTCS has had to increase distance-learning infrastructure (purchasing state-of-the-art Wi-Fi units and placing them in the parking lots on all of our college campuses so students who needed it could have internet access), updated facilities to meet CDC requirements for health and safety, developed a class schedule that would ensure we kept our building occupancy capacity at 50% or less, and provided professional development for our faculty and staff to be able to serve our students in this new-normal.
All these changes come with a significant cost. Luckily, federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funding has helped with the immediate financial needs. But we are very concerned about the long-term financial impact if the pandemic does not subside.
• Rebuilding the president’s leadership team. In my five-plus years as KCTCS president, I have had to hire 15 new college presidents and replace three of the six members of my cabinet, who combined make up the KCTCS President’s Leadership Team (PLT). Almost all of these personnel changes were brought on by retirements.
Losing the years of institutional knowledge of those retiring leaders could have set us back as a state system. But just the opposite thing happened. I was able to hire enthusiastic new leaders who immediately bought in to my emphasis on expanding the completion rate of our students and strengthening our relationship with Kentucky’s businesses and industries. The new PLT has led their colleges in producing all-time highs in student success metrics that have elevated our national status among community colleges, and they have expanded our services to Kentucky’s businesses.
Messages for Lawmakers and Business Leaders
“My message to lawmakers is that the most important investment you make with taxpayers’ dollars is education,” he said. “There is overwhelming data that shows that adults who have earned college credentials have higher lifetime earnings and, in turn, reinvest in their communities. Lawmakers should put higher education funding at the top of their priority list when building a state budget.”
His message to business leaders is also simple.
“KCTCS wants to be your ‘growth partner,’ ” he said. “ We want to provide you with an educated and well-skilled workforce so that your company can continue to grow and thrive. As your business evolves and your employees’ jobs begin to change, KCTCS wants to work with you to design a training program that upskills those employees so that your business never skips a beat.
Memories from a Career in Higher Education
Box has a plethora of memories from 18 years in educational leadership. His favorite? Service on President Trump’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.
“I was appointed in March 2019,” he said, “and have been reappointed to serve through September 2021. The 25-member board is co-chaired by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and includes the CEOs from prestigious corporations such as Apple, IBM and Lockheed Martin. Our work this last year culminated in a report presented to President Trump and the interagency National Council for the American Worker on the board’s recommendations of how education and the private sector can work closer together to improve the preparedness of America’s workforce.
Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]