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KCTCS receives grant for initiative to better connect learning and job market

Competency-Based Education Network to help close the gap between higher education and the demands of labor market

VERSAILLES, Ky. – The 16-member Kentucky Community & Technical College System launched “ALIGN,” a 12-month project to plan an improved educational model to help students gain skills most relevant to current and future state workforce needs.

The project will create a comprehensive guide for colleges and universities across the nation, which will also inform opportunities for implementation at KCTCS.

“Our approach to delivering postsecondary education must keep up with the demands of employers and learners. This is about taking bold steps to help learners translate educational experiences into economic opportunity,” said KCTCS interim President Paul Czarapata. “This must become the norm if we are to make good on our promise of delivering truly career-focused programs that help all Kentuckians build the knowledge and skills they need in a timeframe and at a cost they can afford.”

The project is funded by a grant from Ascendium Education Group, a Madison, Wisc.-based nonprofit school-loan guarantor organization committed to investing in initiatives that support low-income learners in their pursuit of postsecondary education and workforce training opportunities.

Ascendium has a stated commitment to diverse pathways into postsecondary education, which include competency-based education. The opportunity to support and learn from Kentucky’s statewide approach, according to the organization, resonates with Ascendium’s mission of addressing persistent barriers that learners from low-income backgrounds face.

The disconnect between education and the workforce has been a longstanding challenge. Studies show more than 40% of recent college graduates were underemployed even before the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the country, only 26 percent of working adults with college experience strongly agreed their education was relevant to their work and day-to-day life. In Kentucky, the knowledge and skills gap is particularly pronounced in “middle skills” roles that require postsecondary education but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. The pandemic is likely to make this mismatch worse, as many of the jobs that disappear will be replaced with new kinds of work.

To address this challenge, ALIGN will be shaped through a partnership with faculty and staff from all 16 institutions and the KCTCS system office, students, employer, and industry partners, government agencies, and other Commonwealth constituents, who will spend the upcoming academic year evolving its general education, technical and workforce solutions programs. ALIGN will also convene a statewide advisory group to ensure external partners can better understand the steps KCTCS is considering and provide critical input to the planning process.

KCTCS has tapped the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) to support the planning project and design the new model. A competency-based model focuses on what students know and can do, through the demonstration of the knowledge and skills needed by employers today. Students move forward at a personalized pace, which may allow for high-quality programs to be completed in less time and at a lower cost.

The goal of ALIGN is to create a community that provides support and services for each student to help them succeed while also providing them the flexibility to ensure they can pursue education and complete a program.  Ultimately, students are prepared for the workforce and can demonstrate the knowledge and skills employers need.

“Higher education institutions have the opportunity to better connect education to work—and ultimately, to help more Americans achieve economic security and mobility,” said C-BEN Executive Director Charla Long. “Kentucky recognizes this and is set to become a national model for how community colleges across the nation can address this challenge at scale.”

At the conclusion of the planning process, KCTCS will share its experience with peer institutions. KCTCS is partnering with Barbara Endel Consulting to create a field guide to explain the process and how the role of partners throughout the state created an education model that is better aligned with business needs. This will support institutions and systems nationwide in customizing their learning approach to meet the speed of business.

“The pandemic is exposing and widening the gaps learners face as they seek to transition between education and work,” said Amy Kerwin, Ascendium’s vice president of education philanthropy. “An education model that focuses on knowledge, rather than time, as a measurement could play a critical role in closing those gaps. Ascendium is proud to support promising strategies that have the potential to drive system-wide change.”