Home » Lane One on One: Getting Kentucky Back to Work is Top Job at KCTCS

Lane One on One: Getting Kentucky Back to Work is Top Job at KCTCS

KCTCS focused on meeting students where they are in life and changing their lives, says President Paul Czarapata

By Mark Green

KCTCS President Paul Czarapata

Paul Czarapata was named the third president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) on April 21, 2021.

Czarapata joined KCTCS in 2000 and most recently was vice president and chief information officer, responsible for guiding the strategic direction of technology across the system of 16 colleges. Czarapata came to KCTCS after working for PeopleSoft, Oracle, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and three small software consulting firms. He’s been an adjunct professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and University of the Cumberlands.

Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Czarapata earned a bachelor’s degree in operations management and information systems from Northern Illinois University. He earned a master’s degree in business administration and a doctorate in instructional technology leadership, both from Morehead State University. He is involved in several national and local organizations, loves to play golf with his family and is a big Chicago sports fan. Czarapata has a 12-year-old son and lives in Versailles.

Mark Green: A top goal in the current five-year strategic plan for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is to increase the graduation rate one percentage point annually, which would be 31.5% this year. How is that going?

Paul Czarapata: We’ve made tremendous progress in the graduation metric. Of the most recent cohort, 35.3% have already graduated, surpassing our strategic plan target. This rate will continue to increase as students complete credentials in the upcoming spring and summer terms. Last year’s overall graduation rate was a record high, 40.2%. Much of the improvement in graduation rates is explained by the efforts to align programming and supports with best practices for promoting completion. That’s your flexible degrees of pathways, enhanced student services and financial support, and continuous efforts to align our programs to what business and industry needs. Over the 2016-2022 strategic plan, the graduation rate has increased by nearly 50%.

And the graduation rate for underrepresented minority (URM) students grew to 28.6% last year, which was an increase of two-thirds over the life of the plan. That surpasses the strategic plan target of 23.9%. However, we have to do better. There is a 9 to 12 percentage-point gap between our URM graduation rate and total graduation rate. There are additional supports and services that work with those URM students that we need to invest in to make KCTCS as equitable as it can be. Along this diversity route, in 2017-2018 each of our 16 colleges began implementing their own diversity plans, which directly target student success and completion.

MG: What do you credit for improving the graduation rate?

Kentucky Manufacturing Going Pro Day generates excitement about the jobs students take as a result of the training they gain at KCTCS.

PC: It’s the non-academic barriers we’ve tackled, like emergency microloans if a car breaks down, help with child care. Just in COVID relief funds from the feds, we have given out over $20 million for food and shelter needs of students. Our students are much different than university students. Close to 40% have dependents. Many are working. Many are much less well-to-do as far as family income. In many cases, they’re the first in their family to attend college.

Our students got smacked with COVID and all the challenges. When you close down K-12, you’re having problems making rent and can’t find a place to send your kids for daycare, you can see they’re not going to be able to come to college. We’ve got to do everything we can to provide them with resources. In Louisville and other places, we provide bus passes to students with transportation issues. We try to meet our students where they are in life. A lot of times they cannot do the traditional Monday/ Wednesday/Friday from 9 to 12 schedule, so you have to have flexible course offerings, have a flexible faculty and make sure you’re offering programs when your students can make it.

Forty-five percent of our students are over age 25. That’s why we need to offer evening and weekend courses. We have 24/7 welding labs in Ashland that run all week long. That’s the type of thing we need to do to be innovative and serve the commonwealth the best we can.

MG: What is your top goal for the system?

PC: My board of regents, my president and I believe KCTCS is going to be the solution to get Kentucky back to work. I just finished a 16-college tour called the EARS tour: Equity, Agility, Responsiveness and being Streamlined. A lot of my private-sector background in information technology is around business-process redesign and making sure things operate efficiently. We want to make sure we get students in, get them trained, then get them out into the workforce or transferred on to a university in the shortest time possible. That means aggressive advising. That means wraparound services to make sure that if the student needs tutoring, they get that.

We want to offer programs and courses in the most efficient way possible and make sure students aren’t taking classes that aren’t going to do anything for them. One of my goals is to lower our average number of credit hours students take to get associate degrees. The average is close to 70; it needs to be closer to 60.

President Paul Czarapata recented visited the system’s 16 campuses.

MG: It has to be a challenge to maintain communication channels with 16 diverse sites around the state. What are your strategies? You mention the EARS Tour.

PC: It was great that Board Chair Lisa Desmarais joined me for that tour and made an investment to come hear firsthand the issues and opportunities and feedback from all of our colleges. I’m in constant contact with our 16 college presidents. A group that includes my cabinet and the presidents called the President’s Leadership Team convenes monthly, and we’re in communication weekly. The system office also works in lockstep with the Council on Postsecondary Education.

KCTCS office operations are like a franchise headquarters would be for Yum! Brands; we do all the back-office accounting and payroll and marketing and financial aid, to free colleges up to do the stuff that’s important, which is teach and serve students. You get the economies of scale, especially as we can purchase things for much less money than individual colleges. It’s helped us in immeasurable ways.
I’m in Frankfort one day a week so I can get in front of legislators from all over the state to make sure we’re being responsive. They have constituents who have needs, and if they’re not getting met, they’re going to come to me. It’s better to be proactive and get these things handled up front.

MG: What specific channels do you use? TEAMS meetings with the 16 presidents? Do they call you? Email you?

PC: All of it. Every other month we get face-to-face for a two-day meeting. On off months we do a full-day TEAMS meeting; everybody gets on across the state. We have an agenda and presentations, just as if we were face-to-face. That saves our presidents from driving; from Paducah to here is a trip. We bring in speakers, such as Paul LeBlanc, who’s the president of Southern New Hampshire University. He’s best known for growing their enrollment from 10,000 students to well over 100,000 by offering flexible online programs, opening things up for the military and making sure they give credit for prior learning and initiatives. He’s going to share with us what he’s found and we’re going to pick his brain and hopefully come away with some good ideas.

MG: Kentucky has diverse workforce needs. How does KCTCS stay responsive to this broad set of needs and requests?

PC: Our institutional research folks play a key role. They have their eyes on labor data. They have their eyes on business and industry through surveys. We leverage outside help, too. We’re always trying, to use a Wayne Gretzky term, “to skate to where the puck is going to be” three to five years down the road.

As part of our strategic planning, we brought in a futurist and talked about what’s going to happen 20 years down the road: what we need to be ready for, what our student body is going to look like, how we need to change our programs and classroom design. When gutting a space, we make sure to put all the utilities in a modular manner that can be changed easily, especially for technical programs. Those age out quickly and you have to replace equipment.

KCTCS campuses hold social events to provide students, faculty and staff with opportunities to interact.

You have to be ready for what’s coming next. I look at the ($5.8 billion BlueOvalSK) battery plant that’s going in Hardin County. We don’t know yet what some of the ancillary jobs are that will pop out of that. We’re going to have to get funding to upgrade the Elizabethtown (Community and Technical College) technology building to make sure we’re flexible enough there. I’m assuming things are going to go through the roof, like diesel mechanics and things like that. That plant’s supply chain is going to be moving from (Hardin County) up I-65 to Ford’s Louisville Assembly plants and the Kentucky Truck Plant in northeast Louisville.

Exciting times, but it’s a challenge because when business and industry come to you they need something “now.” The stance you take (at that moment) may not be as strategic as you need it to be—you have to be responsive while keeping your eye down the road to avoid doing something that locks you into a bad decision. It’s a fine line to make sure you’re being responsive but also strategic instead of just tactical.

MG: In 2018-19, KCTCS awarded 37,128 credentials with 78% in five targeted sectors: health care, business IT, transportation and logistics, advanced manufacturing, and construction. Where do those credential numbers stand now?

PC: It’s fallen due to COVID. This isn’t a KCTCS thing; this is at community and technical colleges across the country because our students were the hardest hit. They worked in industries that shut down; daycares closed so they couldn’t continue (without child care). The credentials have fallen, but many of our students have persisted through COVID, and the faculty and staff have had to innovate through the pandemic.

KCTCS awarded credentials to more than 20,000 graduates during the 2020-2021 year, the first time in our 20-year history that we did that. We awarded 39,458 credentials in the 2020-2021 academic year, including 10,400 short-term certificates designed to help students enter high-demand industries such as health care and transportation. We had 10,341 associate degrees. The percentage of credentials awarded in the targeted industry sectors held steady at 78%.

MG: KCTCS is the state’s primary provider of manufacturing training. Is it the norm across the country that public community technical colleges are the main providers of private-sector training?

PC: It’s very typical. There are pockets across the country where labor unions provide much of the technical and trade training. But if you look at the Ivy Tech (Community College system in Indiana) and at Virginia Community College system and others, for the most part we do it. That’s why we’re being looked at now to get Kentucky back to work. There are a lot of folks who have fallen off the grid, who aren’t coming back to school and haven’t gone back to the workforce.

I heard a news report before the holidays that the savings/spend rate is at an all-time high; people are liquidating what they have in the bank. I don’t think this is sustainable. At some point people are going to realize they either have to go back to work or come back to us (for training) and we’ll get them into the workforce as fast as we can.

MG: KCTCS has more than 400 manufacturing partners, many through the KYFAME (Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) program. If a company wants a KCTCS training program created, how do they go about this? Do they have to pay anything?

PC: We’re really proud of our Kentucky FAME program; that is the reason we were able to get that training facility in Hardin County. Ford looked at what we’ve done with Toyota, and what we’ve done with others and said, ’This really works.’ We’re proud of it. There are 103 member companies in KY FAME, with more than 60 employee sponsors and 11 chapters across the state. Our graduates work for more than 400 advanced-manufacturing partners.

Most Kentucky companies qualify for (KCTCS-)TRAINS (state funds designated to help companies invest in workforce development for their employees). TRAINS offsets customized training for new and incumbent workers—the state provides 75% and they put in 25%. They also pay a 10% administrative fee. Companies can receive up to $225,000 annually for this. In some cases, we can deepen that discount. It depends on how big the project is and whether there’s additional state support. The state put in another $5 million in TRAINS money for that Ford (battery plant) project, to be used over five years.

We work with employers to design programs that meet local labor needs, even if the trainees aren’t employed with the company. We can engage in pre-employment training. Jefferson (Community and Technical College) worked with LG&E to lift the line technician program in Greater Louisville and customize the approach to student recruitment. We worked with the Cabinet for Education and Workforce and offered scholarships to underrepresented minorities to address LG&E’s priority around diversifying their talent pipelines. Since LG&E contributes supplies to us—such as the poles for the pole yards, assisting with classroom activities and mentorships—they did not need to pay KCTCS to develop the program.

If there’s a proven labor market need, we stand ready to create programs. We have a set amount of TRAINS funds, but when special projects come along, we usually can get additional funding through the legislature.

MG: How long does it take to create a program when a company goes to KCTCS?

PC: It depends on how complex it is. I’m guessing the program at that battery plant is going to be extraordinarily complicated. A lineman program is easier because you just have to have poles in the ground; not that it’s any less technically difficult but in cases where we need to have equipment and machinery and installation lead time—and then supply chain issues on both coasts—it’s really interesting to say the least.

MG: For employers looking at their future needs, how does KCTCS track and report the types of credentials it expects to issue over a coming time span?

PC: In October 2020, the Kentucky education-to-workforce GIS application went live. This online system allows users to explore networks and trends in education and workforce alignment. It was created by KCTCS in partnership with the American Institutes of Research, the education strategy group and state partners at the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Kentucky Department of Education staff section, the Kentucky Center for Statistics (KYSTATS), the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board (KWIB) and then the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. It was developed with money from the James Graham Brown Foundation with support from the KCTCS Foundation. This is a tool anybody can use and it shows education and workforce alignment or non-alignments all across the state.

It has information such as prospective jobs and the number of graduates coming out. It forecasts what’s needed…and helps us plan the next step in our roll out.

KCTCS is partnering with the American Institutes for Research to deliver in-person and remote training to key partners in business and industries. We don’t provide direct tracking for employers, but we work with local and regional employers, KWIB, KYSTATS, the Kentucky Department of Education and others to ensure there’s communication about employer needs and how KCTCS is meeting those needs. We have lots of partners on everything we do.

MG: All fields are having challenges in recruiting and hiring. What challenges are you facing and what programs are hardest to get faculty for?

PC: It’s health care. Rural respiratory therapists, surgical techs, medical assistants, certified nursing assistants—all of these are in high demand now throughout the commonwealth. Also, information technology, advanced manufacturing. It’s a lot of the jobs where people are already making good money so they don’t want to leave the field to come teach. When we do get them, it’s hard for us to pay market rates. Some universities swoop in and take them. University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, the other universities can typically pay more than we can. It’s difficult.

We try to make sure people understand we have a lot of other benefits beside salaries. We have a great benefits package. The No. 1 priority of our board of regents is compensation and compression and paying faculty more equitable salaries, getting salaries up closer to market. It has been difficult. We have a few nursing areas where they’ve had to wait six months to get people in as instructors. In some cases we have to partner; we’ve had initial discussions with health care systems about using some of their employees—a clinical faculty on a part-time basis. They might be more apt to do that than to completely leave where they are.

Businesses and industry are starting to realize they’re going to have to partner with us and other education partners or they’re going to be in a terrible situation. I don’t think I’ve talked to a legislator yet who doesn’t have constituents worried about health care, particularly hands-on bedside nursing positions. Some areas have hyperinflated work outside of health care now, drawing nurses away. You have call centers paying $20 an hour. Amazon pays 20-something dollars an hour. They’re having trouble recruiting. The governor declared an emergency on it several weeks ago. We’re doing everything we can to get people interested in high-demand areas when they’re in high school, even middle school. We have to start educating students and their parents that there are great jobs they might not know about. Things are going to get better, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

President Paul Czarapata speaks during a meeting of the KCTCS Board of Regents.

MG: What is the makeup of your student body today? Is the idea of a ‘typical student’ an outdated notion nowadays?

PC: It has changed. We’re the No. 1 dual-credit-offering institution, so that give us our high school base. But if you compare us to the university, our students are more likely to be the first person in their family to attend college, 55% versus 33%. Thirty-four percent of our students have dependents versus 8% at the university, 35% of our students make a household income of less than $20,000, and 32% of our students are 25 or older.

We have some very young students; actually, if we get really good at dual-credit we will work ourselves out of a job. There are students who graduate high school with an associate degree and we miss all opportunities with them. We have to offer dual credit at 40% of our tuition rates, so we lose a significant amount of money on that but dual credit is the right thing to do. It gives students a leg up. We’re hopeful in this legislative session we can move that cost to our break-even point, about 55%—maybe 50% after this session. It’s an effective program.

MG: How does KCTCS provide financial assistance and the nontraditional supports you mentioned?

PC: There’s a proposal for high school students to fill out the FAFSA (Federal Application for Financial Aid). Once we get that information, a huge number of federal and state scholarships open up for them. Seventy-six percent of all KCTCS students received some form of financial aid in 2019-2020. We work with more than 5,000 companies that do some tuition benefits as well as earn-and-learn options, apprenticeships, paid internships or co-ops. Students are concerned they will need to balance a full-time job with their education. We must work to ensure they have connectivity to help.

Once the FAFSA is filled out, that opens the floodgates for everything else. In many cases we have students who, through financial aid, don’t pay any tuition because of federal and state aid. It’s a great majority of them. We are THE cost-effective option in Kentucky. Our tuition is the lowest, we’re in every corner of the state, and we have a very strong online program.

MG: What are the current trends in online versus in-person learning? Is there a different formula for a student to be successful going online?

PC: We were doing a lot of online before COVID hit and it served us well. We had to move classes you would have never considered online—technical programs that are hands-on and competency based. Online learning is a skill. You aren’t born knowing how to teach online; there’s a design process to go through. It’s important to make sure you’re not just posting a syllabus and that students get the interaction they need with both their classmates and the instructor. It can be just as good as a face-to-face class; it can be better or it can be worse. There are nuances to all of it. It depends on the instructor and the topic.

The data show that if a student isn’t exposed to any college work when they’re in high school and tries to go all online, many times they fail. They don’t know how to budget their time; they don’t know how to learn yet, basically.

When you look at retention, much of that comes through connectivity with their instructor and classmates and the institution. If they’re in all online classes and they’re not set up to be collaborative, where you’re interacting with people, many times they drop out. They just don’t feel these connections. Unlike universities, we don’t have residence halls, sports or dining services at most places, and our chances for interaction are much less.

Even in our face-to-face classes, sometimes between the parking lot and the classroom is the only opportunity they have to build connections. So, it’s important to have modern facilities and libraries built for interaction—versus being a quiet place—and learning spaces and communal spaces where people can interact and basically learn how to learn.

My doctorate was instructional technology and it’s a passion of mine. Instruction is only as good as the time and effort put in the design of the course. You need to have instructional designers on staff who can work with faculty and make sure you have all the interactive features that you need.

MG: What is the digital fluency rate for Kentucky students, faculty and staff?

PC: It’s getting better; COVID may have forced everybody into this. Even my parents know how to Zoom now. My son in seventh grade has been using an iPad since he was about 1½. This next generation is digital native, which sets up the expectation that KCTCS is digital native—you’ve got instant feedback and you can be responsive and get back to people as fast as they want you to.

Digital fluency has gotten better. Our faculty, even the ones who never thought they’d be teaching online, have really stepped out of their comfort zones and picked up a lot of this technology. I’m really proud of them.

MG: What would you foresee if Kentucky provided “free” community college like our neighbor Tennessee does?

PC: I look at all the scholarships and programs we have in place and I don’t think it would make a huge impact. Making something free takes some value away from it. It makes it much easier to give up. I came up in a blue-collar family and was always taught you’ve got to have a little skin in the game, making investments with your time, your blood, sweat and tears. From a performance-based funding standpoint, it would scare me to go there because it would affect our (retention) numbers. If it’s given to you, you don’t have that same regard for it.

I know Tennessee has done some good work, but they have a very intensive onboarding program where students really have to have the desire to get into it. They’ve got to set aside time before they even get in and get vetted. Tennessee tries to make sure they’re going to be committed to it.

On paper, (free community college) sounds really good. I think in practice it wouldn’t do much for us. We’ve already got a lot in place.

MG: What is on KCTCS’ wish list if it had additional funding?

PC: Funding to attract and retain our hard-to-fill areas: allied health and IT, technical faculty. It’s so difficult to compete. We have job openings in some areas it seems to take months to fill. If you can find someone who’s really good in cybersecurity, they’re probably already making well north of six figures. To get somebody to come back and teach these things, it’s really, really, really expensive. But there’s a big need for it, so you have to. In many cases you have to make significant investments in faculty, then try to fill the classes enough to make them profitable.

If we had the extra funding, part of that would be for recruiting and retaining faculty. We haven’t typically offered sign-on bonuses or retention bonuses, but as you look across the country, that’s where things are headed.

I think we can get where we need to. We have some very innovative HR directors across the state who are trying to come up with ways we can tackle those problems.

MG: What is the mood among educators, administrators and staff at that KCTCS, and what is the culture you want to see in the system?

PC: COVID has made everyone stressed. We do have a compensation and (salary steps) compression issue that needs to be fixed, and our board has been clear we’re going to fix it. That’s going to take investment and very strategic budgeting. We need new avenues for revenue, whether that’s increasing enrollment or finding outside funds or just getting creative. That’s our No. 1 issue.

I’m a servant leader. I don’t expect anyone across the system to do something I’m not willing to do. We need to be equitable, agile, responsive and streamlined in everything we do and make the best use of everything we’ve got. At the end of the day, if you treat your people right, good things happen and I’m committed to that. I’ve been awestruck with what our faculty and staff have done through this whole pandemic and how they put students on their back and just dragged them across the finish line with the credential or a degree. I hear these stories every day. Nobody works in higher education for the money. It’s because it changes people. It changes their families forever. I’m the luckiest guy in the world in this job.

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